The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part One

Chapter One

 

Ketteridge, Leicestershire, England, December 1, 1815

 

She was going to die of sheer exposure. She was exhausted. Her limbs were shaking with the effort of simply putting one foot before the other. Her heart was pounding with exertion and weariness, but Rowena Drake doggedly kept trampling through the deserted copse. She had planned to escape the sting of the heavy snowstorm by leaving the road to find shelter in the undergrowth. The springy trees gave little protection, as they were now bare. The early winter dusk was quickly settling, and Rowena was desperate to find somewhere to spend the night. Hopefully, somewhere warm and dry.

Two weeks before, winter had caught the English Midlands by surprise. After a fortnight of dry, frosty nights and open, sunny days, the temperature had suddenly dropped. The wind had turned north and gained strength. It had brought packs of heavy, black clouds, pregnant with snow, which now flogged the empty fields and pastures. The wind blew between the cottages of small villages with a banshee’s howl.

As she trampled on through the hellish weather, weariness and hunger were beginning to take their toll on Rowena, but her journey had not nearly come to an end. Some days ago, she had left her home, Daveston Hall in Cumberland.  Rowena’s half-brother Roderick had become the next baronet after their father died, earlier that year. His estate was situated twelve miles west of Carlisle, and Rowena had covered them on foot, dragging her heavy portmanteau behind her. In Carlisle, she had spent the night in the cathedral, terrified that she should meet any of her acquaintances, if she put up at an inn. Her shame would be known all too soon.

The next couple of days, she had walked over the main road from Carlisle to Lancaster, sleeping in barns and even in the roadside undergrowth. She had not enough money to sleep at an inn every night. In Lancaster, she found a small inn and asked for a room. She needed to clean herself up and have a good meal for the first time in days. The landlady eyed her suspiciously. The woman clearly could not fathom why a lady would travel without a husband, a brother or a father. Rowena had none of these male protectors to help her.

She had been underway on the stage coach from Lancaster to London for several long, uncomfortable hours, but her meagre coins had not lasted very long. When the coach had deposited her on the side of the road just past Tamworth, she had again continued on foot. She was at a loss as to how she was to reach London without money or food, for that matter. Rowena could not even recall the last time she had a meal. It was seven or eight days, maybe, since she had left her childhood home. There had been no more money for food. How low she had fallen, and in so short a time.

Now Rowena kept putting one foot in front of the other, stubbornly ignoring her fatigue and her gnawing hunger. She had not the slightest inkling where she was, and there was no way of orientating oneself, as the snow was now a curtain shielding everything within a few feet from Rowena’s view. Where was the road? When had she lost sight of it? Her foot suddenly caught in a rabbit hole, and she landed on her knees, her outstretched hands keeping her from falling flat on her face.

For a few moments, the lure of giving up was almost overwhelming. She was already numb with exhaustion. She read somewhere once that death from hypothermia was merciful, even blissful. One would just slowly but inexorably fall asleep, never to wake again. Rowena could feel herself drifting away at that very moment … No! No, she must go onward!

Fighting against the wind’s slashing stings, Rowena struggled to her feet and trudged on. She must be soaked to the bone, she thought. Her woollen cloak was drenched, as were her gown, undergarments, stockings and half-boots. Her hands in their sodden leather gloves had long lost all feeling. Sometime ago, she had lost her bonnet, and her hair hung in sodden strands around her face. She had lost her portmanteau long ago.

Eventually, Rowena realised she was going to perish in this white hell. She staggered on, each step more faltering than the one before. No, she would not give up. If she was to die here and now, she was going to die on her feet. She was the Baronet of Daveston’s daughter and she would hold on to her gentle upbringing. It was the only relic she had left of her family.

Then, all of a sudden, there was a light ahead. She blinked against the millions of snowflakes blurring her vision, welcoming the warm yellow glow with immense relief. Rowena waved her arms, shouting against the raging wind. “Help me! Help me, for the love of God!”

 

“Major, there is someone there! Ahead of us …”, James Porter yelled.

The deep, powerful voice of his master, clearly audible against the howling wind, answered in return. “Who goes there?”

“Help me! Please, help me!”

A woman. Some blasted female had managed to go astray on a day like this, and in this hellish weather. “Stay where you are! We are almost with you!”

Major Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge, bridged the gap between him and the woman in three long strides, ignoring the protest of his batman Porter. A second later, he caught her in his outstretched arms. There. He could not have ignored that blasted protecting streak in him, if it killed him. Too many years of playing the soldier had stamped it in. First defend, then protect. If necessary, attack. Yes, that as well.

She was very light, his mind registered. Slender and feather-light. And she seemed to have gone limp in his arms. Her hair, even wet and cold as it was, suddenly caught in the stubble on his chin.

“We must get her indoors!” Alex shouted at Porter. He swept the woman up and waited for his batman to guide him towards the house, which he knew was not far.

“Aye, major!” Porter yelled back and took a firm hold of his master’s arm. “This way!”

Alex Raventhorpe was as good as blind. His eyesight had been seriously damaged by an injury to the head on the battlefield at Waterloo, in June of that same year. He knew the difference between light and dark, could see movements, provided they were not too fast. Occasionally, he could make out forms when they had bright colours. Faces were a blur, but he could fairly judge people’s moods by the tone of their voices. His hearing had considerably improved, since that June day, when he had become an invalid.

They reached the house and entered through the scullery door at the back. Alex lost no time but hailed his cook, who most certainly had to be busy in her kitchen.

“Quickly, Mrs Hall! We need some help with this young woman. She was in the driveway. Can you install her in one of the downstairs bedrooms?”

He saw a flash of her white apron, when Mrs Hall came bustling toward him. “Oh, my goodness, my lord! We ain’t putin’ ‘er in a servant’s room, for sure! This ‘ere is a lady, judgin’ by the quality of ‘er cloak. Mr Porter, take over from ‘is Lordship and put ‘er in the blue room. The bed in there is made. Trixie ‘ll light the fire in no time.”

It was taken out of Alex’ hands in the blink of an eye. Soon he was alone in the kitchen, with the sounds of hasty footsteps disappearing through the servants’ corridor and up the stairs. A lady, then. That definitively needed some enlightenment.

Alex shed his wet coat and hung it on a peg in the scullery. He had not many servants left at Ketteridge House, his country estate. He was the earl of Ketteridge but he hung away his own coat. The estate was in dire financial straits, and Alex had only recently regained most of his former strength. He was struggling to manage his derelict estate with the money from his war time winnings, which fortunately were ample enough. Investing his money in successful businesses had been easy, yet trying to revive his estate and make it prosper again proved a lot harder. He was in dire need of a steward but he had little chance of hiring such a man when he was unable to go to London. There were many matters that Alex could leave to Porter, but searching for a steward was not one of them. With a mental shrug, Alex put his troubles aside and climbed the servants’ stairs, determined to deal with the new problem at hand; the young woman he found in his driveway.

 

On the first floor in Mrs Hall’s “blue bedroom”, he heard his erstwhile cook give orders to Trixie, concern ringing in her voice.

“Easy there, Trixie. Lord, she’s so cold, poor mite, and so thin! We must wash her after we’ve removed those wet things. ‘Ere now, pour those buckets into the tub. Mr Porter said he’ll bring some more soon. You take ‘er by her feet and I’ll take ‘er under the arms.”

Alex stepped inside, careful to stay by the door. He knew Mrs Hall must have put the folding screen in front of the hearth, and he was not as familiar with this room as he was with his own.

“Are you in need of help, Mrs Hall?” he asked, but the cook instantly replied in a panic-stricken voice, “No, no, my lord, stay where ye’ are! It ain’t proper fer ye to even be ‘ere!”

“Mrs Hall, it cannot be improper since I cannot see the lady. Can you manage lowering her into the tub?”

“Well … she’s thin but Trixie an’ me are ‘avin’ a bit of trouble liftin’ her in ‘er present condition, my lord.”

Alex stiffened. “And what condition might that be, Mrs Hall?”

“She’s expectin’, my lord. She’s at least five months gone but she looks healthy enough.”

Wonderful. A pregnant woman, probably a married lady, had landed on his doorstep in the middle of winter. That could only mean trouble and mayhem. Would he now have to deal with an irate husband, too? He inwardly cursed at the notion that his hard-won peace was certain to be shattered in the days to come. He had to get her away from Ketteridge House as soon as possible, damn it all!

In an impulse, he ignored the cook’s startled cry of warning and crossed over to the bed, a white rectangle with blurred contours. He put out his hands until they encountered the figure of the woman. Soft, round flesh, unexpectedly bare and vibrantly feminine. Damnation! Mrs Hall must have already removed her clothes. She was so cold … God! What if she would expire here, in his house?

“Sir, she’s …”

“Yes, I know, Mrs Hall. Let me get this over with, so that you can tend to her as quickly as possible.”

Alex slid his hands under the woman’s limp body, lifted it and settled it in his arms. She was light as a new born kitten, her body slender and delicate. Her dark head fell against his shoulder, causing her floral fragrance to assault his senses. His own body – damnation! – reacted in a most improper but violent way. By Jove, he had no need for this, right now! Knowing how long he had been without a woman’s touch, he should have listened to sane, solid reason, instead of indulging in foolish gallantry. Yet he could not ignore how lovely it felt just to hold a woman in his arms once again.

He let her down into the tub, relieved because at that same moment Porter entered with more hot water, which distracted the two women. Mrs Hall would soon take over, he knew, so he supported the woman, while she rested in the warm water, and made sure her head was above it.

For the space of a heartbeat, he regretted not being able to see her clearly. Her face was a pinkish spot, her body nearly invisible now that it was immersed in the water. But he could feel the silken caress of her dark hair flowing over his fingers, not to mention the velvety touch of her flesh, and the curve of her slender bottom. Gently he let her body drop to the bottom of the tub and then, unable to help himself, he touched her stomach. It was swollen to a gentle mound, and he spread his fingers over it. Suddenly, the babe moved against his hand. Oh God … oh dear God … His heart contracted with a longing ache he had not thought he would ever feel. He would never have this. He would never have a woman of his own, a woman who carried his child, and on whose stomach he could place his hand and make contact with his very own babe.

“Ah …”

Dragged from his self-pity by the woman’s soft cry, he all but growled, “Mrs Hall! Quickly, she is coming round!”

The cook leapt from behind the screen and took hold of the woman’s body. Alex jumped up and fled the room.

The Reclusive Aristocrat -Part Two

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.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Three

Chapter Two

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 2, 1815

The next day, the weather was still extremely harsh. The snow had stopped, but the temperature had dropped considerably. The fields now lay buried under a blanket of solid ice.

Alex readied himself for a meeting with his Leicester solicitor. Septimus Middlebridge was in his mid-sixties, and had been his father’s man for as long as Alex remembered. A tall, wiry man with a large beacon of a nose in a long, thin face, and piercing blue eyes, Middlebridge still wore a wig in the style of thirty years before, powdered and with a tail, and corkscrew curls framing his face, which made him look like a French courtier. Mr Middlebridge was extremely frugal and would not waste money on a new wig when the old one was still up to snuff, Alex knew. It was an excellent characteristic for a business man.

“Good morning, my lord,” Mr Middlebridge greeted Alex in his quiet, somewhat breathless voice, as if he considered an excess of breath necessary to lend his voice the necessary strength an equal waste. Alex could not clearly see Middlebridge. He saw the man’s outlines in the black frock he always wore, and the white contours of his head, where the wig covered it. Alex had, however, no clear vision of the man’s face, besides what he remembered from the time previous to his injuries.

“Good morning, Middlebridge. Please, sit down. I will have Porter bring us some tea.”

After the tea had been brought, Porter seated himself next to his master. Alex heard Middlebridge lay out his documents in a meticulous way. The solicitor then made his skeleton-like hands crack like dry sticks, before clearing his throat.

“My lord,” he croaked, “although your personal finances are quite ample and very strongly invested in sound businesses, I am sure I do not have to tell you that your estate is in a dire situation. You are in need of a good steward and a sturdy plan to right all the wrongs that exist here.”

“I agree, Middlebridge. No need to elaborate on what I already know. I intend to take matters in hand, from now on. My injuries are sufficiently healed that I can get to work.”

“Are you saying, my lord, that your eyesight has improved? That would be very good news.”

“No, Middlebridge, it has not. My batman Porter here acts as my assistant in reading and writing. What is the most urging matter that has to be dealt with, in your opinion?”

“Well, my lord, I am no steward, but I am aware that an estate needs tenants, who tend to its fields and woodland. Your tenants have begun leaving for better places, such as city factories, where they can at least make a little money, to feed their families. The few that have stayed have elderly relatives and small children. I need not tell you, sir, that they are in dire circumstances, and little else than starving.”

“Yes, I know that. At my request, the village vicar has been delivering food baskets to alleviate the most urgent needs. I know people have been leaving for Leicester and its factories, yet what good will that do them? Working in cotton mills or gun factories for a pittance, and living in dilapidated hovels for which they pay exorbitant prices?”

“Nevertheless, my lord, you need to keep the ones that are still here. You must provide them with food and fuel for the winter, because this year’s crops were disastrously lacking, as you are aware of. Next spring, with the help of a good steward, you should be able to have them work the land and plant new crops. There is no lack of funds, my lord. The interests on your investments provide a most satisfying income, but with the continuingly escalating situation on the Continent, we English have to establish a stable situation at home.”

Alex nodded, well aware of the Vienna Congress aftermath, which had created new hearths of turmoil on a continent that had barely recovered from the Napoleonic Wars.

“Well,” he sighed, “let us go over the state of my investments then, Middlebridge. Explain to me exactly where I stand on spending my money.”

 

Rowena opened her eyes and found herself refreshed and strong. She washed and dressed, then went downstairs to the kitchen. Mrs Hall was already busy at her stove.

“Oh, dearie! Are ye up already? How are ye feeling?”

“Better, Mrs Hall, thank you. Can I give you some assistance with your chores?”

“Oh, no, ma’am! I can tell that ye’re not a commoner. It wouldn’t do fer ye te be doing manual labour.”

Rowena smiled. “No, you are quite right, Mrs Hall. I was raised as a lady, but I am no longer one now. And my name is Rowena. Rowena Drake.”

“What has happened te ye, me dearie? Ye can tell ol’ Thea about it. I’ll never tell a soul, upon me word!”

Rowena sighed. She really wanted to confide in someone, but she was afraid they would look upon her with disdain. She shook her head. “Please, Mrs Hall, I cannot divulge. His Lordship also asked me, but I refused to tell even him.”

Mrs Hall’s eyes  grew round as she gasped, “The master asked ye? Well, bless me soul! He’s been ever so reluctant te talk te people since he’s back from the war and now he’s interested in you! Mr Porter will be happy te hear of it. That man so worries about ‘im, he does.”

Trixie, who had finished washing the dishes, came to sit at the table. Her ears had pricked the whole time. “Oh yes, ma’am! ‘Is Lordship has had such a terrible time, wounded as ‘e were when he came back from fighting that dreadful Bonie!”

“Yes,” Mrs Hall acquiesced, “he came back blind and covered with fearful wounds. He was unconscious when Mr Porter drove that cart into the stables. Mr Porter has lost an eye in the battle of Waterloo, and he had been wounded, too. Yet he didn’t give up. When the master lay wounded and bleedin’ on the battlefield, Mr Porter carried ‘im on ‘is back to a nunnery nearby. The nuns tended them and then Mr Porter brought the master ‘ome. He carted ‘Is Lordship from the Ketteridge village coach inn. Poor master’s wounds are healed now, since Dr Orme took ‘im under ‘is care. The good doctor couldn’t cure the blindness, though.”

“Yes,” Trixie chimed in, “and ‘Is Lordship being the spare had to become the next earl after Sir Reginald died. There’s been no money ever since the old earl passed away, and now, Master Alexander ‘as to put in ‘is own money just to keep us fed.”

Rowena listened to all this in mounting surprise. So the earl was struggling to keep his estate running. And he had had a brother, whom he had lost, and whose place he had been forced to take. And he was as good as blind. And she, Rowena was imposing on his already dire financial circumstances.

“Well,” she declared, “I had better earn my keep, then. I cannot travel in this weather, for sure. Tell me what task you want to give me, Mrs Hall.”

At that moment, Mr Porter entered from the scullery, carrying a pair of polished riding boots. He bowed his head to Rowena.

“I see you’re well recovered, ma’am. The major ‘ll be pleased to hear of it.”

The man did his best to overcome his accent, but cockney vowels were not that easily suppressed. Nevertheless, Rowena recognized the salt of the earth when she encountered it.

“Mr Porter, I am obliged to you for rescuing me from that dreadful storm, last night. You saved my life, sir.”

“No trouble at all, ma’am. If ye’ll excuse me, I must go an’ tend to the major.”

Rowena glanced at the big kitchen clock on the wall, which indicated a quarter past ten. Early for an aristocrat.

“Is your master always up that early, then?”

“Yes, ma’am, ‘e suffers from insomnia, so ‘e wants te make good use of the day an’ start working early. I just showed Mr Middlebridge out. That’s ‘is solicitor.” He touched his brow and left.

Rowena stood pondering a while over what he told her. She liked the batman whom she guessed must be in his early forties. He was as tall as his master, but much broader in the chest and shoulders. His sparse grey hair must have been dark when he was younger. He wore a patch over his right eye, but the left one was a rich, warm brown. He had a slight limp, probably caused by a battle injury.

“Come, dearie, have a nice cuppa tea. Ye’er way too thin and ye’re expectin’, so ye must seek te keep yer strength. How far gone are ye? I’m guessin’ five months, am I right?”

Rowena blushed, then shook her head. “Actually, I am due at the beginning of February.”

“Ye never! That’s barely in two months’ time!” Mrs Hall exclaimed. Trixie, too, clucked incredulously. “Ye look far less, ma’am!”

“I was always thin, so I guess it is normal for me not to show it.”

The door opened again to Mr Porter. “The major will ‘ave ‘is breakfast now, Mrs Hall. And ‘e wants ye te join ‘im in the morning room, Mrs Drake, ma’am.”

 

The earl rose when Rowena entered. He was dressed in a plain, brown woollen coat, a moss-green, unadorned waistcoat over a white shirt, and dark brown breeches under black top boots. His black cravat was tied in a simple knot.

Even in these plain, dark clothes, Raventhorpe was an impressive sight, Rowena acknowledged with a shock. His tall, muscular frame oozed power and authority. His stance radiated confidence, and the fact that he was blind did not seem to mar the elegance of his movements.

All Rowena had noticed the previous night, was confirmed under the weak sunlight of the winter day. Raventhorpe wore his black hair a trifle too long, but the cut emphasized his strong, lean face and angular clean-shaven jaw. Loose curls framed his face and fell becomingly over his wide brow. They were tamed a bit by the ribbon that tied them in a short tail. Raventhorpe’s nose, long and thin, had a tip that bent downward for just a tad. It softened his whole face which would have been too forbidding, should his nose have been straight.

Rowena’s gaze went to the earl’s eyes; clear blue-grey but unseeing, they were directed at her, and slightly squinting as if he wanted to sharpen his vision, just by sheer willpower. His large, thin-lipped mouth was set in a rigid line, as if he were bracing himself against some kind of danger.

The stiff, military bearing emphasized Alexander Raventhorpe’s breeding to the extreme.           Rowena instantly sensed his reined-in strength, his rigid control over what must be a strong temper. A dangerous man, she reckoned, if one made an enemy of him. Even the plainness of his attire could not lessen his handsomeness, nor did his non-committal smile disguise his watchfulness. He looked like a predator, a lion waiting to pounce on its prey.

Rowena curtsied, even though she knew the earl was unable to notice. “Good morning, my lord.”

Raventhorpe bowed. “Be so good as to share my breakfast, Mrs Drake. I hope I find you well-rested after your ordeal?”

“Yes, sir, I slept extremely well. I hope to be on my way as soon as the weather permits. I will not impose on you any longer than necessary.”

He said nothing in return, but Rowena saw his jaw clench and wondered. She sat down when Porter drew back her chair. Raventhorpe waited until she was duly seated before letting himself sink onto his chair. Porter served them breakfast, then left them alone.

Raventhorpe began buttering his toast, then said in a calm voice, “Correct me if I am mistaken, Mrs Drake, but I do not think that you can be on your way. You have nowhere to go. You are pregnant, penniless, and you have no skills that would permit you to earn your living. I am absolutely certain that you were gently bred, so how were you planning to fend for yourself?”

Rowena’s temper flared at his bluntness. “You are indeed mistaken! I speak four languages, I play the piano and I sing. My household skills are well enough since I took care of my brother’s …”

She abruptly stopped, realising that she was too outspoken in the presence of gentry. She was also giving too much away.

Raventhorpe’s expression of calm interest had not changed. He was looking in her direction so attentively that Rowena had the impression that he was actually seeing her. His blue-grey eyes were alight with a sparkle that made them a periwinkle blue. It was a most disconcerting sensation, and Rowena shivered. Her host smiled, and it made his stern face look charming and boyish, all of a sudden. Rowena’s heart skipped several beats as she caught a glimpse of the young man he must have been before he went to war. Utterly beguiling.

“My dear Mrs Drake,” he said evenly, “I am offering you a position as my housekeeper. Mrs Hall is always complaining that she is getting on in years and that she has to do everything on her own; a statement which is true, sadly. I can give you but a small salary of two-hundred guineas a year, but you can make use of all the comfort my estate has to offer. You can have your child here, and raise him or her to your heart’s content. Is that agreeable to you?”

Rowena was utterly speechless. Her eyes filled with sudden tears of relief, or gratitude, she did not know which. Raventhorpe’s offer was a gift from heaven; it was all she needed on this very moment. Acting as Ketteridge’s housekeeper would allow her to have her baby and raise it. Peter’s baby. Oh Lord! She could find other employment, should the need arise, and leave her child here under Mrs Hall’s care. The elderly woman would be all too eager to help her out, Rowena knew. She would be totally independent of Roderick, her ill-natured half-brother. She would be safe at Ketteridge House.

Outwardly imperturbable, Alex was nevertheless waiting with baited breath for Mrs Drake’s – Rowena’s – answer. It irked him that he was so anxious that she could very well refuse and leave Ketteridge after all. He did not want her gone, yet he could not understand that very disturbing emotion. She had entered his life only the day before, for goodness’ sake! He did not yet know a single thing about her. She could be married and be running away from her husband. Or she could be with child unwed, and a sinner. And for that matter, who was she? A lady, or a defiled governess, carrying a lord’s child? Or a clergyman’s daughter fallen into sin? So many questions, yet he could not bear to have her go. Not without learning the answers to his many questions.

“My lord,” she said, her voice wavering just a little, “I accept your offer with the uttermost gratitude. I will work hard, and I need no salary. If I could just stay at Ketteridge to have my child, that would be enough. Thank you, my lord.”

Suppressing a sigh of relief, Alex bowed his head. “That is settled, then, Mrs Drake. I will not hear of you working without remuneration. Two-hundred guineas a year, and that is final. Now let us enjoy our breakfast. I bet you have a tendre for Mrs Hall’s rolls.”

“I confess I had a taste of them already in the kitchen, just a few minutes ago, my lord, and you are right; they are delicious.”

“Mrs Hall is a true gem, Mrs Drake. I hope you and she will get along, because she is the expert on all things at Ketteridge House. She came here as a tweeny in my mother’s days and has stayed throughout the years. However, she informs me that there is a Herculean task to perform in putting the house to rights. The cobwebs have taken over, it seems.”

Rowena laughed and took a piece of toast from the rack. “Yes, that was what I saw of it, too.”

“You have a lovely home, my lord,” she continued, growing serious again. “Even in winter, it seems a beautiful place. I will enjoy taking care of it. Mrs Hall told me that you have only recently inherited the estate and the title. It must be greatly different from your military days, I wager.”

Her tinkling laughter still in his ears, Alex replied readily, finding himself greatly uplifted by Mrs Drake’s company. It was the first time since he came back from the war that he felt so light and joyous. With a jolt of surprise, he acknowledged Rowena Drake was responsible for that.

“Oh, it is very different, Mrs Drake. Being a soldier, and in particular a cavalry man, gives structure to one’s life. The military routine is what lends peace to one’s mind. It is a way of thinking, a way of living. What I found here, was merely boredom, and an acute neglect from lack of funds. Nothing that cannot be put to rights with money. No challenge.”

“Surely, soldiers do not find peace on the battlefield, my lord! From what we heard, even through the shield of censorship, Waterloo must have been a nightmare!”

There was an almost inaudible touch of distress in her voice, which Alex would not have been able to discern without the heightened awareness his blindness lent him. She had a connection with the battle, he was sure of it.

“Forgive me for reminding you of a most disturbing experience, ma’am,” he said, putting as much comfort in his tone of voice as he dared. “I forgot that wars do not solely kill on the battlefields. Have you lost someone dear to you on June 18th of this year?”

“Yes …”

It was like a whisper, a whiff of pure sorrow. Alex cursed himself for prying.

“I am sorry,” he said, trying to offer comfort with his voice. He felt the sadness welling up inside him like a source full of evil and despair. He again recalled his own misery when his regiment was being destroyed by the relentless French artillery. All because of the stupid pride of British commanders like Uxbridge, for whom a battlefield was first and foremost a way to display the cavalry’s splendour and horsemanship.

Alex let the silence be for a while, searching for the next topic of conversation. There was not much he could do to comfort her but there was something he must learn, now, at this moment.

“Mrs Drake, have you consulted a physician about your pregnancy? I gather that you are almost at the end of your term, according to Mrs Hall.”

Rowena was astonished at the earl’s unexpected words. He – a man! – was asking her these things?

“No, I have not, my lord. I consulted a midwife in Car … erm … in my home town. She only confirmed the due date, beginning of February.

“There is a perfectly good doctor in Ketteridge. His name is Dr Orme, and he and I are long-time friends. On the other hand, if you would feel safer with a more accomplished physician, I could take you to my own doctor, Dr Richardson in Harley Street, London.”

“Oh, no, no, my lord, Dr Orme will suit admirably, I am sure!”

“Good, I shall summon him here tomorrow. Mrs Drake, there is something I need you to tell me. Since you are staying under my roof, I think I have a right to know if I need to be on guard for a husband to turn up at Ketteridge house.”

Rowena’s hands flew to her suddenly hot face. Oh, Lord! The earl had asked her a question that was going to be on everyone’s mind when they saw a young, pregnant woman travelling on her own. And the earl was perfectly reasonable, he had a right to know.

“I am unwed, my lord. I lay with my betrothed, and we would have married if he had not been called to join his regiment. He was killed at Waterloo. I had only just found out that I was with child, when the messenger came with the tidings of his death.”

She had spoken so quietly that Alex had to strain his ears, yet he did not miss the deep sadness that laced her voice. To his own stunned surprise, he felt a sudden burning anger against the man who had done this to her. It was absurd. It had nothing to do with him and it certainly was not his business. Yet he could not help thinking what an irresponsible, selfish man her betrothed must have been, to lay with her and then leave her to go to war, before they had exchanged wedding vows. The next and very logical question formed in his mind.

“What about your family? Surely, they could have helped you?”

Rowena abruptly stood, appalled by what she had so impulsively revealed. No, she could not talk about Roderick and how he had chased her from her childhood home! It was suddenly extremely important to her that the earl should not think of her as a disgraced woman without any support from family or friends. She had said enough already; he must not learn who she was. She could not disgrace her father’s name any further.

“I … I have no family. Now forgive me, my lord; I must return to my duties.”

Alex had risen at the same moment Rowena had, to prevent her from running away. He was too late, of course, and his affliction was to blame for that. His blindness effectively kept him from swift reaction. His new housekeeper was gone, fleeing from further prying into her private life.

 

From that day on, Rowena firmly settled into a quiet daily routine. She put together a schedule to cover all the tasks that were required to keep the large mansion in good order.

In the mornings, she would work alongside Mrs Hall and Trixie, to see to the laundry, the ironing and the cooking. In the afternoons, the three of them would tackle the cleaning. Many rooms were not tied up for a long time since they had not been used. Rowena wanted to bring everything back to normal.

To that end, she walked to the village, bundled up warmly against the bitter cold. Enquiring at the inn, she introduced herself as Ketteridge’s housekeeper and asked Joseph Carter, the innkeeper, for female help. He brought her a few local girls, the daughters of local Ketteridge tenants, who were eager to come and work for her. The earl had provided her with an advance on her salary, which she now used to pay the girls. She did not tell the earl that she paid them out of her own salary. He had enough to worry about already.

As for her future dealings with her employer, she was determined to shield herself from his all too inquisitive nature. One day, she would leave Ketteridge House and make a new start for her and her child. For the moment, she could stay here until the end of winter, and make a little money.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Four

Chapter Three

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December 4th, 1815

It had become urgently clear to Alex that he needed to find out all there was about Rowena Drake. She would, however, not be forthcoming; on the contrary, she was extremely reticent, as if there were a deep and dark secret in her past. She was also avoiding him, and taking extreme care not to be alone with him.

“Porter, be so good as to search a tome for me from those shelves over there.”

Alex and his batman were in the library, working on the ledgers. Or better, trying to find their way through the heavy volumes. Alex, unable to see, had to guide a Porter who lacked the educational skills to understand what he was supposed to find or read.

“Where, major?” the servant grumbled. “There must be thousands of the blasted books in here.”

Alex walked to the case nearest to the gigantic fireplace. It amazed him how easily he found his way in this room, even though he had not been here often when he still had his ability to see; it had been his father’s realm and later his brother’s. Yet now, it seemed to have become his.

“If I remember correctly, the book I want must be in this book case here. There should be an inventory on the first open shelf, placed on the extreme left. Do you see it?”

“Yes, I have it. What now?” Porter puffed.

It was a tedious task to make Porter act as his secretary, Alex thought. It was, however, the only way he had to learn the content of documents. He was just extremely thankful that his former batman had learnt to read and write as a child.

“The volume I need is Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage. It is a rather thick book with a red leather cover. The inventory will have the location of it in this particular book case.”

Still grumbling, Porter climbed the steps in his slow, hobbling way. He still suffered from that bullet wound in his thigh, Alex knew. Soon the batman came back down with the requested book and laid it on the desk to open it.

“Christ, major! I’m too old for this, I can’t read those tiny le’ers!”

“Use the magnifying glass, if you please.”

“Very well, what’m I lookin’ fer?”

Alex took a deep breath. The die was cast, he mused.

“Families named Drake in Cumberland. Find every fact you can.”

Porter’s next comment made him grin. “Yes, major, but couldn’t ye just ask her? There’s a whole bloody page of ‘em!”

“I could but I have not. Now continue, if you please?”

Mumbling to himself, Porter began reading, while Alex bit back a smile. He knew he should scold his old batman for being disrespectful, yet he was unable to reprimand the man who saved his life on the battlefield. Cumberland … yes, Rowena Drake had nearly given it away herself, had she not? Her accent was very faint but distinct.

“You do know that she’s been employing girls from the village and the neighbouring farms, I hope?” Porter continued in a casual way.

That surprised Alex. “No, I was unaware of it, although it makes sense. If Mrs Drake is supposed to clean up this old pile of a house, she will need proper help. I wonder how she is paying them.”

“Out of her own pocket, I suppose. She hasn’t asked Mrs Hall for coin, as far as I know.”

To his own surprise, Alex again felt a grin tugging at his mouth. So Rowena Drake was taking her task seriously, then. Good. He made a mental note to provide Rowena with the necessary funds for her girls.

 

Casting a last appraising glance at the four girls working in the first room she had selected to be thoroughly cleaned, Rowena turned and hurried down the stairs to have breakfast with her employer.

She wondered if there would be something in store for her on this day, December 4th. Silly thought, she scolded herself. Why would anybody at Ketteridge House even know that this was her birthday altogether? She had better banish these silly, childish thoughts once and for good. Today she turned twenty-one, and if her father had not chosen to leave everything to Roderick, her half-brother, she would not have been in such dire financial predicaments at the moment.

It had been a tremendous shock when Rowena, still crushed by grief of her father’s demise, had been coldly informed by Roderick’s unfeeling solicitor that she had no right to any of Daveston Hall’s funds. How well she remembered that scene in her father’s vast library with Roderick standing at the window with his back to her, and deliberately not looking at her. She would never forget the hurt she felt then, the apprehension at the realisation that she was on her own from then on, and that she was at Roderick’s mercy.

“Ah, there you are, Mrs Drake.”

Rowena abruptly stopped when the earl’s voice sounded at the foot of the stairs. He must have heard her, she reflected. She tucked a loose lock of hair back into place and proceeded her way down in a slower pace. Ridiculous, once again; the earl would not even notice her appearance.

“Good morning, my lord.”

Her employer’s eyes turned her way, but they did not focus on her. It was strange, but only now Rowena realised the extent of the earl’s handicap. Those beautiful blue-grey eyes of him would never actually see her. He must feel miserable at some moments, she mused. She could not even begin to imagine what it must be like for him.

“How did you know it was I approaching?” she asked.

He smiled, chuckling low. Rowena felt it deep in her belly, and shivered.

“My sight light be failing, but my hearing is not. I am already familiar with your step, Mrs Drake.”

She watched him return to the morning room from whence he had come. It was fascinating as well as pitiful to witness him trying to assess the distance he had to bridge. At some point, he was forced to stretch out a hand in order to prevent himself from bumping into the wall, and then use his fingers to guide him to the door. Slowly, Rowena followed Raventhorpe through the door, admiring the certainty with which he found his way to the small table at the window. How did he manage that? Once inside a room, he always seemed to go straight to where he wanted to go to.

“Mrs Drake,” the earl said, his voice rather stern, “I want to establish some very fundamental rules for you in managing this household. I absolutely forbid you to pay staff from your own resources. If you have need of money, you shall come to me and ask for it. Is that clear?”

“Yes, my lord,” Rowena replied, stunned by his stern tone. “Forgive me, I meant no offence.”

“None taken, ma’am. Next, I wish to make something clear. I insist on you disclosing who you are. It is absolutely necessary that I know, Mrs Drake.”

Flames shot up to Rowena’s face, while her heart started thumping alarmingly fast. She was grateful that Raventhorpe could not see the fear rising in her chest like bile.

“My lord …”

“Is your name actually Drake? I have considerable doubts about that, my dear.”

Rowena swallowed at the large lump that seemed to block her breathing.

“My lord, I … I implore you; please trust me. I am no criminal, if that is what you are concerned about. I am just a … a disgraced woman, seeking to set her life back on the right track. If I could just stay here and …”

“You can stay as long as you like, Mrs Drake, have no fear. Yet I must know who you are, for the simple reason that I must protect you as long as you stay under my roof. I am a soldier, Mrs Drake. We reconnoitre, assess, and protect. In order to be able to protect those who depend on us, we must know all the facts. So, for the last time, Mrs Drake, who are you?”

At that moment, the sun broke through the clouds and streamed into the room in full force. Its rays touched the earl’s eyes, just as he directed his blind gaze at Rowena. In the beat of an eyelash, they changed from the rather dull blue-grey to the sudden, vivid, almost hot sapphire blue of a summer storm lightening. It had the most astonishing effect on Rowena. Her heartbeat fluttered, and then pounded in her ears like shots from a canon. She grew warm, and her stomach clenched, leaving her quite shaken.

The panic she had been feeling suddenly grew tenfold. Rowena stood so quickly that her chair overturned and crashed with a noise like thunder. She stumbled to the door, eyes blinded with panic. She knew not how but she reached the stairs and began ascending them, clutching the banister with both hands. There was no longer reason dictating her, only a deep-rooted fear that she might succumb to the sudden, primal attraction he overwhelmed her with. Knowing that, acknowledging that, was too much.

The baby suddenly kicked hard, and her stomach lurched. Nausea swept over Rowena, forcing her to her knees. She retched but nothing came. Her lungs seemed clogged, all of a sudden, and she choked, gasping for air. Her vision blurred, grew darker …

Then she was picked up by a pair of strong, muscular arms; her head came to rest against a hard, but comfortingly warm shoulder. With infinite relief, Rowena inhaled the earl’s clean, overwhelmingly male scent, for it was he who had come to her rescue. All fear suddenly evaporated, to be replaced by a blessed peace. This man was innately honour-bound to protect, not to ravish or destroy, at least not without a reason. As he swiftly carried her back to the morning room and laid her down onto a chaise-longue, all in one smooth motion, Rowena felt once again safe, reassured, and calm.

The earl crossed his arms and straightened to his full 6,3’.

“Mrs Drake, I strongly advise you to behave sensibly. You are carrying a child, and you might have fallen down the stairs and injured yourself and the babe. Now …”

“How do you manage that?”

It was out of Rowena’s mouth before she realised that it is rudely inappropriate to cut one’s employer. He looked puzzled yet not in ire. His eyes were a soft grey-blue, now.

“How do I manage what, Mrs Drake?”

“Finding your way so rapidly into a room, never getting lost once you pass the doorsill?”

“Well, I know this house like the back of my hand. It is after all my ancestral estate; I grew up here. As for a room, once I have memorized where all the furniture is located, I will stay clear of it. Of course, everything must be left in the same spot. Porter looks to that and helps me make the necessary reconnoitring rounds, the first time I come into an unfamiliar room.”

He paused, directing his gaze to where Rowena sat. “What happened, Mrs Drake? Why did you dash out of this room as if the devil himself was at your heels?”

“I … I cannot truly say … It was as if I was suddenly in a room without air …”

The earl dropped to one knee, bringing his face level with hers, and although Rowena knew that he was unable to distinguish her expression, it nevertheless gave her the illusion that he was looking straight into her eyes. She felt strangely mesmerized, but also safe, and protected. When he laid the back of his hand against her cheek, she pressed against it, revelling in the immense comfort the simple gesture gave her. It felt entirely natural.

“You panicked, that is what happened,” the earl said gently. “I have seen it many times on the battlefield. Men freezing with horror, shutting out their surroundings, lowering their guns, dropping to their knees while clutching their heads or covering their ears. Overwhelming fear can bring it about, or even intolerably great despair. You were so afraid to tell me about yourself, that your body reacted in the only way possible; it bolted to escape danger. There is no need for that, my dear. You are in no danger when staying at Ketteridge House because you are under my personal protection.”

Alex could feel the struggle in Rowena Drake by the way she breathed; rapidly and shallowly. The woman must be in real danger, he mused. Some irate husband who abused her, and from whom she fled out of self-preservation? If what Porter had read was true, then she could not be the Rowena Drake of Daveston Hall near Carlisle in Cumberland, because no mention had been made of a marriage.

“Are you – by any chance – related to the Drakes of Cumberland?”

He had made his question as casual as he could but was rewarded by her sharp intake of breath. Oh, she had done her best to be as quiet as possible, but Alex’ hearing was sharp and he had caught the faint hissing sound.

“How …”

“I checked it. Are you from Cumberland, Mrs Drake?”

“Yes …” A note of the panic again, and she suddenly rose, nearly tumbling him over. He caught his balance and rose as well, and took hold of her arm.

“Then you are the Honourable Miss Rowena Drake of Daveston Hall, daughter of the Baronet George Henry Drake and Clarissa Maud née Stowe.”

She was trembling, and he wanted to comfort her. He wanted her to trust him. He had no inkling why this as so important, all of a sudden, but it was important, even vital. She was born in 1794, on the fourth of December, which meant that – dear Lord! – today she was twenty-one. So young still …

“I have it right, have I not? You are Rowena Drake from Daveston Hall?”

“Yes,” she breathed, then sighed. “How did you discover that? We live very remotely and have no acquaintances to speak of. I never had a London season, and the only towns we visited were Carlisle and York, where my father’s only sister lives.”

“Come,” Alex said in a sudden, light tone. “We can converse at the breakfast table. I am in need of sustenance after all this.” It made Rowena smile, her heart suddenly much lighter.

Alex guided her to her seat, then sat down and rang a small table bell for Porter. The servant came in with their plates soon after, served them and left. They ate in silence for a while, but Alex, not wanting to let the moment go to waste, resumed their conversation.

“I must congratulate you on your birthday, Miss Drake. I had Porter look you up in Debrett’s, so I am abreast of all there is to know about your family. You almost gave yourself away when you stopped yourself from naming Carlisle, and you also speak with a slight Cumberland accent. I am afraid I have to repeat my earlier question; what has happened that you are here at Ketteridge House, far away from the place that you call home?”

Rowena sighed, and then resolutely made her decision to trust the earl with her history. She believed him when he spoke of protecting her and everybody twho lived on his estate.

“My father died rather suddenly last year, from an apoplexy,” she began. “I met my fiancé the month after he died. We had an affair and he promised me marriage. Then came the war and my betrothed left to do his duty. He died at Waterloo. Soon after he left, I found out I was with child. I had little choice than to leave my childhood home after I became pregnant.”

“I do not understand,” Alex interrupted her. “You have a brother. Did he not take measures so that you would be protected?”

Again that word, Rowena realised. Protection. It seemed a paramount notion to the earl.

“My brother said he would give me a small, remote cottage on the estate, where I would stay until after the baby’s birth. He would then take away the child and give it to some people he knew would raise it when he paid them for the upkeep. I was appalled! How could he ask something like that of me? I told him in no uncertain terms that being separated from my baby was out of the question. He threatened to take me to some relatives in Scotland, by force if necessary, so I took all the money I was able to save over the years and fled. I quickly learnt that my meagre savings were too inadequate to bring me to London, where I hoped to find a position.”

“Why were you so short of funds? Surely, as the daughter of a baronet, you would have been provided for in your father’s will?”

“I was not included in my father’s will,” Rowena replied bitterly. “Roderick’s solicitor stated that my father was a firm believer in male primogeniture, in order to keep his estate free of debts. Roderick was my father’s first and only son, and it was left to him to support me. I was only the daughter my father had by his second wife, so I was supposed to marry and leave the estate. There was not even a dowry for me to give to my future husband.”

Good Lord, Alex thought. How could a father do this to his daughter? And the brother? Why would he not take care of his sister? Roderick Drake must be a truly despicable person, and what about that cad of a fiancée who seduced her when she was barely twenty?

“I thank you for trusting me, Mrs Drake, although … you are not a Mrs Drake, are you? I must call you Miss Drake from now on. However, I can no longer employ you as my housekeeper now, can I? You have been raised as a lady, and to do menial labour would be highly inappropriate for a baronet’s daughter.”

“Oh no, my lord, please! I beg you, do not send me away!”

Alex, suddenly startled by her plea, felt also unexpectedly moved by the urge Rowena laid in her words. It seemed that she would very much like to stay at Ketteridge House. Almost as much as he himself would like her to stay.

“You misunderstand, my dear. I merely meant that I will hire enough staff for you to oversee. That way you will be up to the additional task of assisting me with my ledgers. Poor Porter is doing what he can but in essence, he is a soldier, not a secretary.”

Rowena could not believe her ears. Relief, massive and grateful, swept over her, when the earl continued in a businesslike manner.

“You will be required to read my correspondence, and write down my replies. When I need to see my solicitor, you will make records of our conversations and decisions. I hope he holds on to his promise of searching for an adequate steward. The estate is in shams, and I need a competent man.”

Rowena swallowed down the excitement that clogged her throat. “I promise to do my utmost best to be of service, my lord. I cannot find the words to tell you how grateful I am for the honour you bestow on me, and please, be assured of my discretion and devotion.”

A chuckle interrupted her and she was astonished to see a mocking smile on the earl’s face.

“My dear Miss Drake, you certainly have a way with high-handed words, have you not? You make my offer sound like charity, and it is not meant so at all. It is good and solid management to take an educated, clever young woman into my staff, one who can help me with tasks I cannot perform myself because of my affliction. So please, no gratitude. It is in my soldier’s nature to make the best of an opportunity when it presents itself.”

There was a sudden, laden silence in which Rowena struggled to find her composure. She was scolding herself once more for her rash impulsivity, something she should have learnt to master by now. Why did she always have to rush headlong into things?

“My lord,” she began, after a long, deep intake of breath, just to calm herself. “I know someone who could help you out until you find an appropriate steward. John Wallis was my father’s steward until he retired, a few years ago. His wife Meg was my nanny, and became my confidante after my mother died when I was five. They moved to Leicester when they left Daveston Hall. Meg has a sister living there. I could write them and ask if they would consent coming to live at Ketteridge House for the time being.”

Alex was completely unprepared for the warm wave of joy that swept through him, at the realisation that Rowena was wholeheartedly joining him in the task of running Ketteridge. He felt positively light-headed with relief.

“Thank you, Miss Drake, and yes, do write to your acquaintances. They will be most welcome.”

They fell silent, each savouring their breakfast. The quietness brought a comfort of its own, and Rowena could not recall the last time she had felt this … well, this simple, undemanding, and soothing happiness. She knew it was too early to feel this way, given the mere seven days she had been here, but there it was, she did feel truly safe at Ketteridge House. At home.

“I would be honoured if you would have dinner with me tonight, Miss Drake.”

Stunned, bewildered even, Rowena stared at her employer, then belatedly recalled that he was unable to see her.

“My lord, such an act would be entirely …”

“Inappropriate? Yes, it would, but only if I cared for such trivial matters such as the rigid rules of Society. We are not in the London drawing rooms, my dear. I can never venture into the Ton again, and believe me, I have no wish to do so. I knew it all before and did not particularly liked it. Now that I am no longer whole, I find I even care less for it. Ketteridge House is my domain, and mine alone. You are my guest, the first I have in a long time, so please, let me enjoy your company to the full.”

Rowena swallowed at the unexpected knot of sadness threatening to choke her. She liked this man more and more each moment she was in his company. Discretely, she cleared her throat.

“Then it shall be my honour to dine with you, my lord.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Six

Chapter Four (continued)

Alex could not have explained why he wanted to do this, not if his life depended on it. He just knew he had to do it, as if it was something so important that indeed his life would change if he refrained from it. He found himself besieged by the urging, vital need to learn what Rowena’s face looked like. To know what others saw when they looked at her. He needed to explore her features and store what he learned in his mind, so that he would be able to draw forth her image whenever he wanted to.

Registering the shock that rippled through her delicate frame, when he stated his demand, he half expected her to bolt and run, yet she did no such thing. Instead, she stilled, waited, as if mesmerized. Alex lifted both hands and lightly fastened them on her upper arms, then gently turned her to face him.

Rowena’s burgundy-coloured, silken gown had a deep, square neckline, and a high waistline with a cone-shaped skirt worn over three petticoats. The skirt’s cut fell over her swollen stomach in graceful flows. The sleeves were short and puffed, and covered only a small portion of Rowena’s slim shoulders.

That was why Rowena closed her eyes in shock, when Raventhorpe’s long fingers took a gentle hold of her arms. They travelled upwards to encounter the puffed sleeves, went by them and settled on Rowena’s bare shoulders. Her breath hitched at the feeling of Raventhorpe’s large, slightly calloused hands on her flesh. Almost instantly, a liquid pool of warmth formed deep in her stomach, followed by a throbbing sensation at her womanly core. Desire … arousal …

Oh, how familiar it was, that heavenly feeling created by a man’s touch. This man, Rowena realised, knew all about what it took to make his touch unforgettable. She should be stepping back in horror, she should push him away, and run. Yet the only thing she yearned for was that he should continue his slow reconnoitring of her body. That he would not stop. She wrenched her eyes open and gasped when his fingers brushed the swell of her breasts. Instinctively, she pushed herself closer.

Alex desperately tried to focus on the vague image before him. He cursed his blasted affliction that denied him a sharper image. All he could see was the deep red colour of Rowena’s gown, and the creamy hue of skin above it. He was able to distinguish the transition between her dark hair and her pale face, but there was no clear image of it. So he was forced to use his tactile sense in order to adjust his lack of focus, and fill in the heart-shaped features cradled within his palms.

And walked into a quagmire … of overwhelming emotions.

She was exquisite. Her skin was fine velvet, her flesh warm and firm. He let his hands slide over the curve of her breasts, and gloried when they fit snugly into his palm. Her nipples puckered beneath the soft silk. He drew in a breath, and tried to tamp down his growing arousal.

Raventhorpe’s handsome face was set in taut lines, Rowena saw. The wide plane of his brow was furrowed in concentration, his lean cheeks slightly suffused with colour. His blue-grey eyes were open, yet without any noticeable expression, due to his affliction. But they glowed as if a light had been lit inside. It was utterly mesmerizing. Rowena’s gazed fell on his long, thin mouth, and her heart was instantly in her throat. His shapely lips were trembling as if he were on the verge of crying out with pain.

A second later, all thoughts fled from her head, as his fingers touched the sensitive skin beneath the rim of her neckline. She could not withhold the muffled little whimper that escaped her lips, and saw him tense even more when he registered it.

“Shhh … you must not be afraid. I will not hurt you …”

No, he would not, Rowena acknowledged. At least, not deliberately so. She knew for absolute certainty that she would irrevocably be hurt, at some point. And in the very near future, no doubt.

Yet she could not withdraw from the incredible feelings Raventhorpe’s touch created in her. Feelings she had only experienced with Peter, eight months ago.  She forced herself to analyse them; there was desire, of course, but also an expansion of her senses to something deeper, something infinitely more precious. Something that would leave her utterly vulnerable, yet also completely invincible. Ah! Dangerous thoughts, Rowena. Resolutely, she shut all those things out and simply enjoyed Raventhorpe’s administrations.

Alex forced himself to guide his hands away from the temptation of her neckline. He had to keep control, or she would be shocked beyond repair, he knew. He could not bear the notion that Rowena would not consider him a gentleman. With infinite delicacy, he touched her face, and began investigating its heart-shaped form.

Wide-set eyes. A small, straight nose and fine cheekbones. A mouth that was a trifle too large. Pliable lips. The overall impression Alex got was one of delicate beauty. Rowena’s features were utterly feminine and beautiful.

And now he should lower his hands. And found he could not. He should say something, thank her and let go of her. Go on as before. He felt like being frozen, paralyzed, unable to withdraw. He desperately wanted to explore more of her.

A brisk tap, and Porter entered carrying a tray with their food. They jumped apart like two frightened children. In one smooth motion, Alex grasped Rowena’s hand and led her to the small table where their diner was to be served. Rowena quickly sat down again, her face in flames. Alex regained his own seat, feeling his way along the table’s edge. Porter began serving them, his face without any expression as to what he might have witnessed. They ate in silence. They were both too embarrassed to speak.

When the valet had cleared away their plates and gone out again, Alex cleared his throat.

“Do not mind Porter, Miss Drake. He is as imperturbable as a statue. I realise I have behaved a trifle too intimately, for which I sincerely apologize. It was not my intention to cause you embarrassment. I am most grateful that you allowed me to ‘see with my fingers’, as it were; I now have a clear image of you.”

Rowena had to make a considerable effort just to regain her composure. Yet she knew she must, if she was to continue being Raventhorpe’s employee. She forced her voice into normality.

“I must confess to being a trifle shaken, my lord. No one has ever …. well, for lack of a better wording, got to know me through their tactile sense. I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to lose one’s eyesight. You just said you were able to ‘see me with your fingers’. I find this extremely interesting, so would you please indulge me and tell me what I look like?”

Alex’s muscles locked as they did in battle, right before the attack, when all action and motion seemed to be suspended in time. He recognized the sensation all too well; it was the anticipation one experienced when on the verge of making love to a woman. And yes, he whole-heartedly admitted to wanting Rowena Drake in his bed, to have her beneath him and unleash the passion slumbering within her. She was not entirely indifferent to his touch; he had registered that clearly when he made his fingers map her beautiful face. Yet having her as a bed mate was not his primary goal.

Alex was lonely. Since he came back from Waterloo, he had understood that going to London and the Ton in order to find a suitable bride could never apply to him. What young woman would want to share her life with an invalid like himself? What father would want his offspring tied to a man who lacked the most important of senses?

Yet he must wed. He was obligated to set up his nursery, in order to secure the earldom’s succession. And first and foremost, he needed a wife that would stand beside him, come what may. Rowena Drake might just be that woman. Alex instinctively recognized her speech and stance as being those of a gentlewoman. He had felt it when he searched her face, just moments before, that elegance of composure in her posture. It stood to reason, as she was, after all, a baronet’s daughter.

“Merciful heavens,” Rowena’s quiet voice broke through his musings, making him startle into attention. “I must be a freight, indeed.”

“No!” Alex could not stop himself from shouting, nor could he keep his next words to himself if it cost him his life. “You are the most beautiful woman I have encountered in my whole life, Rowena Drake.”

 

Hell. Why had he allowed himself to say such a thing? The absolute silence meeting him from across the table was deafening in its intensity. Alex wanted to make amends but found no words. He had meant it, though. She was beautiful, his Miss Drake. His? He must have gone stark raven mad. A strangled sound reached his ears, and he was instantly on his feet. She was weeping! He crossed the distance between them in the space of a heartbeat.

“Forgive me, Miss Drake. That was uncalled for. I …”

“No, my lord, it is you who must forgive me. I do not know what has come over me. I seem to … to …I am sorry …”

Damn his affliction! What Alex would not have given, only to observe the expression on her face, right now! He reached for her hand but instead encountered her face, her cheek. It was damp with tears.

“Has no one ever told you that you are exquisite, Miss Drake? Are the men in your part of England even blinder than I am, then?”

He cupped her cheek, and she leaned into his palm, a most disconcerting yet pleasant feeling.

“Only Peter, the father of my child called me beautiful, my lord. He loved me, so it was only natural that he would do so.”

“Ah,” Alex said softly, “Peter, the cavalry man, was it? Clever of him. Tell me, Mrs Drake, to what regiment did he belong?”

“The Yorkshires,” Rowena replied, her voice dreamily. “He was so handsome and so …”

A sob cut through her speech, driving Alex to caress her cheek with his thumb. “So … what, Mrs Drake?” He could think of a score of things, including irresponsible, and egotistic, for instance.

“So full of hope …”

Rowena drew in a deep breath and stepped back from the earl’s hand. “I must retire, my lord. Tomorrow will bring a load of tasks that need my attention. I thank you for a most lovely evening. Goodnight, my lord.”

A second later, Alex heard the door click shut.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Seven

Chapter Five

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December11 th, 1815

 “Do you ride, Miss Drake?” Alex asked, a few days later.

They were sitting next to each other in his carriage, a hot brick at their feet and a woollen blanket covering their legs. It had been Rowena’s idea to go visiting the more remote tenants on the estate. Now they were heading back to Ketteridge House. Rowena wondered how she came to be so comfortable with the earl, after what he had done. After what he had made her feel …

He had not repeated his actions, though. Oh, they had continued their meals together, after that first time, but the earl had kept his distance. Nevertheless, Rowena enjoyed that time with him, when she could converse with him and study him at her leisure. She was beginning to like the earl a great deal. Hopefully, that would not get in her way as his servant. He had, however, asked her a question.

“Yes, my lord, of course. I have been riding since I was six. I often accompanied my father on his rides. Daveston Hall is not a large estate, but nevertheless, one needs a horse to reach its farthest boundaries. I suppose Ketteridge is the same?”

“It is.” Alex could hear the coldness in his own voice but was powerless to change it. When on that fatal day in June he was robbed of his eyesight, he had also stopped being a horseman, and that notion nearly killed him, when he finally woke up on his sickbed.

Alex had loved riding since he was able to walk. His father, the late Benedict Augustus George Raventhorpe had been a skilled and avid horseman, who taught Alex to ride from the early age of four. Over the years, Alex had also become a skilful rider. Some of his fellow officers had even called him perfection on horseback. He was not boastful at all, but he knew they were right. Before he suffered his head injury, Alex had been as one with Titan, his massive black stallion, each of them aware of each other like twins joined at the hip. Losing that contact had brought on an additional and equally fierce injury, and this one had been emotional.

A small hand covered his. They were both wearing gloves, but her touch startled him nonetheless. He could feel her delicate fingers curling around his, causing a heat to spread up his arm, and straight into his chest, where his heart suddenly clenched. Alex looked down, trying to focus on her face, but only its contours were visible to him. As her warmth started seeping through the leather, he realised with a painful shock that he yet again desperately craved to know what she looked like. What colour were her eyes? What was the shape of her face, the feeling of her hair, unbound and spilling over his hands in the dark of night? Would his hands be able to feel the texture of her skin, and know her body as if he were able to see her? Her lovely, velvety skin …

With a jolt of conscience, he wrenched his thoughts into normalcy again. He was a fool. What business had he to have such unruly thoughts about a woman he had known for only a few days? Yet he felt old, long forgotten stirrings torturing him, feelings he thought had died long ago. That was what abstention did to a man. Even the slightest touch could provoke one’s most intimate reactions, when one was starved of female company for months.

“My lord, forgive me. I spoke in haste, without thinking. I cannot fathom what it must be when …”

With an effort, Alex withdrew his hand. Her compassion adding to the sexual stirrings she provoked, was more than he could bear at this very moment.

“You need not apologize, Miss Drake. It is not your fault that I am visually impaired. I have learnt to deal with it, and accepted it. I must make the best of it, for my estate’s sake, at least.”

He knew he was pushing her away when she was only trying to comfort him, yet he could not help himself. She was only temporarily helping him with estate matters, was she not? Soon, after her baby was born, she would leave, and never come back again. Why that thought was unbearably painful, Alex had not the slightest inkling. He was a fool.

“My lord,” she said softly, “you were entitled to an apology because I have been speaking rashly. I seem to do that frequently, or so my brother says. He calls me an empty-headed piece of muslin.”

The way she said that sounded so incredulous, and indicated that she was not sharing her brother’s conviction. Alex felt his mouth rising at the corners, in spite of his dark mood.

“Which, of course,” he said lightly, “you are not. Instead, you are a fountain of wisdom. After all, you just accompanied the master on his rounds.”

“You are teasing me, my lord, which, of course, is very bad of you and totally un-gentlemanly. My brother Roderick always resented me, because our father showed a preference to me. As my father often said to me, when I was little, Roderick was the heir, and therefore had enough security and privileges as it was. I fear Papa bestowed his affection on me with nothing left for Roderick.”

Yet, Alex mused, her father’s affection had not reached beyond the baronet’s will. She must have been affected by that cruel decision, yet she found the courage to try and turn her life around through setback and rejection. Rowena Drake, young though she was, showed stomach and spine.

“Do you still own a riding horse, my lord? Peter – my betrothed – always said that a cavalry man can never separate from his horse, especially when they have been in battle together. I could never believe that; after all, a horse is but …”

“It is true!”  Alex hated the sound of his own voice for its harshness but he needed Rowena to see that she was wrong. “Titan and I were never separated. He carried me into battle countless times, and at Waterloo, he never left my side, even in the fiercest bouts of canon fire. Even when Porter had to drag me from the battlefield, Titan faithfully followed us. He survived days without fodder, when we had to make it back to England through the ruined French countryside. Still he followed us and allowed Porter to harness him to a rough, wooden cart. Titan had never been harnessed before yet he took to it with stoicism and strength, even in his weakened condition. He and Porter saved my life.”

Rowena listened in enthralled silence to this declaration of love from a cavalry man to his horse. She was shocked to realize how the earl must suffer unbearably under the fact that he could no longer ride. She could, however, not offer the slightest of comforts, so instead, she laid her hand on his again, squeezing it gently. “So you have kept Titan in your stables, all this time? He must not have known what happened, when you stopped riding him.”

“I have never even been to the stables for all this time …” The earl’s voice broke as he said this, making Rowena’s heart burn with pity. A disastrous misery for both man and horse, then. She made her decision, right then and there, knowing full well that it would drag her into the earl’s private life. It was dangerous, and it could mean further disaster. Yet she brushed aside all warnings.

“Then it is time you two should get re-acquainted with each other. We have reached home. Let us go to the stables, my lord.”

 

Alex descended from the carriage as if in a daze. He declined Porter’s outstretched hand but allowed Rowena to put her hand on his sleeve to lead him to his long-neglected stables. It occurred to him that this was most unusual, yet he could not have stopped her for all the world.

Quite unexpectedly, he seemed to experience an unconquerable urge to seek out Titan for the first time in six long months. He had never found it in his heart to sell his long-time steed, even when he was forced to send almost all the rest to the block. Next to Titan, he had only kept the two carriage horses and one gelding, who was too old to be sold. So, when he heard Titan’s alert snort the minute he stepped into the stables, Alex’ heart leapt in anticipation.

Rowena’s warmth burned through the sleeve of his greatcoat like glowing coals. Yet her small fingers seemed to belong there, as Alex found he needed her support to find out exactly where Titan was. The stables were unfamiliar to him, because it had been such a long time since he had been here. His steps faltered a little, but Rowena guided him to Titan’s box.

“Hello, old boy,” he murmured, reaching out. He was unable to see the stallion but he sensed a warm, familiar vibration that thrilled him excessively. Titan instantly shoved his soft nose into Alex’ hand, and he, in return, pressed his face against Titan’s cheek. They stood there for minutes before Porter, worried about his master, came looking for Alex.

Rowena, tears blurring her vision, stopped the batman with a simple look.

“All is well, Mr Porter,” she whispered.

She and Porter stood watching Alex and Titan as they were re-discovering one another, like long lost friends. Then the earl rather abruptly turned to them. “Porter, have him saddled. I want to give it a try.”

“But, major, …” Porter exclaimed in alarm, but the earl cut him off sharply. “Do it, man!”

Then, to Rowena, “Miss Drake, lead me to the paddock. It is behind the stables.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Eight

Chapter Five (continued)

Rowena did as the earl asked and laid her hand on his offered arm. She was anxious to see how this was going to develop. She was, after all, the one who had stirred it all up. What if something happened, and the earl got injured? Rowena suddenly realised she would never forgive herself.

They came out into the crisp coldness of the paddock. Rowena shivered when the sudden sharp wind whipped over her.

“What is it?” Raventhorpe snapped. “Are you unwell?”

“No, nothing of that, my lord, but … are you certain you should do this? I do not want you to be injured, should something go wrong.”

His mouth, beautiful and sensual, twitched in one of his rare smiles. Rowena’s heart suddenly skipped several beats.

“I find this most amusing, Miss Drake. First you push me to go riding, and when I do, you suddenly feel guilty that I should be hurt. In my experience, women love it when a man do as they ask. It gives them a feeling of power.”

He freed his arm from her too-tight grasp and slowly began walking toward Porter and the horse, all of a sudden very sure of his direction. “Do not concern yourself over me, Miss Drake. Titan and I are old friends.”

It was of no avail. Rowena’s heartbeat would not slow, and she closed her arms over her stomach, where the baby was equally restless. With ever-growing anxiety, she watched the earl climb into the saddle, which he did with effortless grace. Lord, he was a beautiful sight to behold! Tall and ramrod straight, but with a natural ease, the earl moved in the saddle to find his seat. Titan stood very still but his ears were pricked.

At first, Porter held Titan’s reins, then gave them to Alex. The horse’s mighty head reared up in anticipation, but the beast waited patiently until Alex loosened the reins enough for the stallion to allow him a slow walk around the fenced area. A feeling of boundless exhilaration swept over him; he was back in the saddle again! He could feel Titan’s muscles strain under the effort of keeping a slow pace.

The surroundings were a blur, as usual. There was a change of colour from the sky’s grey to the buff of the stable building, when Titan passed by it, but that was all he could see. Alex knew he was doing a dangerous thing yet he could not have stopped himself. The joy of being on horseback after all these months was sublime. He felt alive again, vibrant and masterful.

With careful gestures, Alex steered Titan into a new route, different from the wide circles he had been doing before. Linear now, with sudden angles induced by the pressure of a knee or a slight pull at the reins. The stallion responded flawlessly to Alex’ commands. Yet when Alex deliberately directed him to the fence, Titan stopped short just before bumping into it. The horse whinnied softly. “Good boy,” Alex praised, pleased that the stallion had known exactly what his master had intended.

Enthralled by Raventhorpe’s exquisite horsemanship, Rowena took a while before she became aware of Mr Porter’s mutterings beside her.

“Wha’ the ‘ell is ‘e doin’? Wants te get ‘imself killed, does ‘e?”

To Rowena’s astonishment, the batman seemed overly nervous, stepping as he was from one foot to the other. His hands were balled at his side, and it was costing him a great effort to stay where he was.

“Mr Porter, why are you so anxious? It seems to me that His Lordship is doing well under these circumstances.”

“Aye, and now ‘e’ll want te go riding over the entire estate! ‘Ow’s that going te be, eh? ‘E can’t see a bloody thing, and ‘e’ll bump into every obstacle in ‘is way!”

“No, he will not. Mr Porter, you must accompany him. You must keep your horse close to Titan, and steer the stallion into the right direction. No cantering or galloping, of course. Just a steady, slow walking.”

She could feel the batman bristle in protest, yet he did not speak at first. They both watched in silence how Raventhorpe made Titan wound and turn in quick, unexpected moves. The stallion executed them flawlessly, and the earl seemed completely at ease with every movement, never faltering in the saddle. At long last, Mr Porter spoke.

“This means a lot to ‘im, but ye knew tha’ already, didn’t ye?”

“Yes, and it was not hard to know it. It was abundantly clear that His Lordship was suffering from being denied riding.”

Up until now, James Porter had not paid much notice to his master’s new housekeeper. She was – and he knew that very well – not your average housekeeper. Mrs Drake was a lady, despite the fact that she was not a Mrs and that she was carrying an illegitimate child. She was already leaving her mark upon the major’s life, he had noticed. The running of the household was much smoother than before, even if Mrs Drake had only been at Ketteridge House for a few days.

Yet there was more.

Porter and the major had been together for the good part of ten years, from the day when Raventhorpe had joined the army. As the dashing, young cavalry officer without much responsibilities or cares, Raventhorpe had been attracting female attention wherever he showed up. Women – be they genteelly bred or common – flocked around him and stumbled over themselves to be in his good graces – and as a consequence, to end up in his bed. Raventhorpe never refused any of them but lived his life to the full, without spending another thought on the women as soon as he got bored with them. Moreover, even after Raventhorpe lost his eyesight, that female attention had never stopped. On the rare occasions that the major ventured into society, he would invariably find himself instantly in the centre of a pack of giggling women vying for his favours.

Not that the major paid any heed to women, nowadays. Raventhorpe had not solely lost his eyesight at Waterloo. His spirits had been forever low, as well as his interest in female company.

Until now, Porter observed with interest. His master was very interested in Miss Rowena Drake, and – Porter registered with some degree of annoyance – that feeling was mutual. The lady who arrived at Ketteridge House only four days before, was falling under the major’s spell. Porter did not give a fig for Miss Drake’s feelings, but he was indeed concerned for the first time about his master’s.

The woman was unsuitable to be more than a housekeeper, genteel upbringing or not. She was to have a child out of wedlock, for Christ’s sake!

“Miss Drake, …” Porter began, but was suddenly interrupted by the rattling of carriage wheels from the driveway.

Rowena, too, had heard and she turned to see who had come. From the paddock she could perfectly see the manor’s front and its circular driveway. The two people that descended from their hired carriage had Rowena gather up her skirts and run towards them with a cry of joy.

 

“Meg! Oh, Meg, you have come! Why have you not sent word? I could have sent His Lordship’s carriage to fetch you. Oh, John! It is so good to see you both!”

Rowena threw herself into the arms of Margaret Wallis, her former companion and nanny. Mrs Wallis was a short, buxom woman in her late fifties, with grey-sprinkled dark hair and hazel eyes.

“Oh, Rowie,” she exclaimed, taking Rowena’s hands in hers, “what has happened, my sweet? How did you end up here and … Good Lord! You …” Meg fell silent with shock as she noticed Rowena’s condition.

“I will tell all, Meg, but first I shall get you and John settled.” Rowena turned to John Wallis, a tall, broad-shouldered man with fading ginger hair and green eyes. “John, it is so wonderful to have you here. Lord Raventhorpe is in sore need of a good steward.”

Wallis took her in a bear hug, then looked her over. “My dearest girl, you have lost weight, and your eyes seem sad. How is it that you are here instead of in your brother’s keeping? Especially in your present condition.”

The sound of someone clearing their throat drew all attention to the newcomers, Raventhorpe and Porter, the latter guiding his master. Rowena hastened to make the introductions.

“My lord, this is Mr John Wallis and his wife Margaret. John, meet Lord Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge.”

John Wallis, impressed by the tall, regal aristocrat, bowed deeply for the earl, and Meg did an appropriate curtsy.

“My lord,” John said in a deferential tone, “I am at your service, if you will have me as your steward. I hope Miss Drake has told you about my life-long career in the same position with her father, the late Baronet George Henry Daveston? My wife was Miss Drake’s nanny and later, her companion, until the current baronet let us go.”

Alex could not see Wallis, of course, but he liked the strong note in the man’s deep voice. No hesitations here, no wavering. He extended his right hand and waited for the man to grasp it in a firm hold, well aware of the slight intake of breath when Wallis realized that his new employer was blind.                He should have become used to this, Alex mused. People were always shocked when they were confronted with the affliction he suffered from. Yet it still rattled him that they showed their shock.

“Welcome to Ketteridge, Mr Wallis. Indeed, you will be of great service to me, as you can see that I am visually impaired. Souvenir of the Waterloo campaign, I am afraid.”

He turned to where he knew Mrs Wallis must be and again offered his hand. Mrs Wallis’ grasp was less strong, as if she felt timid. Alex raised it to his lips and brushed it.

“My dear Mrs Wallis, I hope you will again be a friend and companion to Miss Drake, who acts as my housekeeper. I have offered her shelter until her child is born, an event that is not far in the future. Miss Drake could certainly benefit from womanly guidance. I fear she has been stuck with our small staff for companionship, lately.”

“There is nothing that would please me more, my lord,” Meg answered, “than to support my little Rowie when her time comes. Thank you for welcoming us into your home.”

Again, no hesitation there either, Alex noted. The Wallisses seemed to have a solid confidence about them.

 

Much later, Rowena and Meg were having tea in the parlour, that was part of the small suite on the first floor, where the largest bedrooms and small suites were located. Raventhorpe had destined it for the Wallisses, so that Rowena had it ready, when they arrived.

“Now, tell me everything, my poppet,” Meg asked. “It seems that you have got yourself in dire straits, and you have not explained much in your letter to us.”

Rowena sighed. “Oh, Meg … my story is the oldest one in the world; I fell in love with a wonderful young man, we were intimate, and now I am with child. He cannot be my husband because he died at Waterloo.”

“Dearest, my dearest … how awful. But your brother, could he not take some measures to protect you?”

“He wanted my child … Peter’s child … to be taken away and placed into the hands of strangers, Meg. I could never allow that, so I went away. I wanted to go to London and find a position, but a severe winter storm brought me here. His Lordship has kindly offered me the position of housekeeper. I took it.”

Meg blew out a deep gasp. “I cannot fathom why Roderick would be so vicious to you. You and he were not exactly close but still, you are his half-sister. He should have protected you against that young man. Who was he, by the way?”

“His name was Peter Johnston and he was in the Yorkshire Cavalry Regiment. He was the son of a Cumbrian nobleman.”

“Which one? There is not much of a nobility in Cumberland, my pet. Have you not looked them up?”

Rowena bowed her head when sudden tears welled. “I … I was so depressed after he died, Meg. I lived in misery for weeks, and then I discovered my pregnancy. Roderick’s plans for me did not induce me to inquire about Peter, and then I ran away, and now …”

She stopped, realising that, since she had set foot in Ketteridge House, she no longer felt the need to inquire about Peter. It was as if she was slowly, gently letting go of him … But she could not! Peter was the father of her unborn child! She must keep his memory alive for her baby’s sake, at least.

“And now you are here, working as a housekeeper for this earl,” Meg’s voice dragged her back. “A bachelor, Rowie, and no mother or sister in sight. This is highly improper as you have no chaperone. Your reputation will be utterly ruined, when this is known.”

“Meg, I am already thoroughly ruined! I am pregnant and without a husband!”

“Still, Rowie, it can become worse, and you know it. People will think that the child is His Lordship’s, and that you are both living in sin under his roof.”

Rowena stared at Meg in horror, a cold sliver running up her spine. “His … his Lordship’s? But … that cannot be … Why would someone think that?”

“Because people always think the worst, my pet,” Meg answered quietly.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Nine

Chapter Five (completed)

Alex gestured to a chair opposite his across the large desk in his library. The chair scraped, when John Wallis seated himself.

“So, Mr Wallis, let us discuss the terms of your employment. I had thought …”

“Begging your pardon, my lord, but I am yet unsure if I want to work for you under the circumstances that present themselves here.”

He must have heard wrong, Alex thought. This elderly, former steward had reservations about working for him? “What circumstances, Mr Wallis? Pray explain.”

“My lord, I mean no disrespect but I am appalled that Miss Drake is living here without a decent female companion. I worked for her father for forty years, and he was the best employer I could have wished for. A good man, an excellent landowner and a doting father to the child from his second marriage. Sir George would be devastated to know that his daughter’s reputation is in tatters. Only you can remedy that, my lord.”

Surely, he was not cut out to be an earl, Alex thought. How was it that he did not burst out in fury and have this insolent man thrown out of his house? Instead, he found himself wondering and thinking over the man’s words, as if they had a hidden meaning, or second contents. And feeling not a bit uneasy about it. Yes, he would explain the situation to this man, who was to be a servant in his house.

“Miss Drake is and has never been my mistress, Mr Wallis, if that is where your thoughts are going. She told me her fiancé – the father of her child – was a cavalry officer who died at Waterloo. She also told me that her brother wanted to hide her, until the baby was born, and then give the child away. Miss Drake fled her home with the intention of seeking employment in London. Her funds ran out long before she reached the capital, and she was forced to continue on foot, without having the slightest notion of her whereabouts. My batman Porter and I found her on my driveway during a snow storm. She would have perished, had I not taken her in. All this happened a week ago, so I cannot fathom why Miss Drake’s reputation would suffer from it. I do not entertain socially, Mr Wallis, because I have been a recluse for months since I returned from the battle. Moreover, I am as good as blind; how can a wreck of a man harm a woman’s reputation?”

There was an awkward silence in which Alex – and not for the first time – cursed his damned affliction. What he would not give to just have a glimpse at Wallis’ face. The man should say something, and then Alex would be able to discern his mood and his thoughts.

“I apologize, my lord, for my rudeness, and I thank you for your patience in explaining the facts to me. Miss Drake is the closest my wife and I have to a daughter; we could not have children of our own. We have known Rowie since the day she was born, and Meg became her nanny, and later her confidante. We love her dearly, my lord, but we are at a loss as what is to become of her now.”

Alex could picture his father’s reaction to a speech like this one; the third earl of Ketteridge would have called for his burliest footman and have Wallis thrown onto the cobles. Even his mild brother Reggie would not have tolerated this lack of propriety. Yet all Alex felt was a deep gratitude towards the Wallisses who had cherished and guided Rowena Drake as if she were their own. It was not proper for him to listen to a commoner’s insolent speech, but Alex could not care less, at the moment. He was just interested in all things concerning Rowena, and the Wallisses were the source he needed to tap into, since they had known her all her life. Rowie … what a ridiculous name … and yet also an endearing, very appropriate name for her.

However, Rowena could not stay here without a female companion. In that, Wallis was right. It was a good thing that Meg Wallis was here; when her time came, Rowena would need help. Alex knew he was prepared to do everything that was necessary to help Rowena. And … he needed to keep her here, after the baby was born. That was paramount. Alex’ mind focussed on that thought and began working out plans to secure it.

John Wallis cleared his throat. “My wife will take Miss Drake with her to live with Meg’s sister in Leicester. That way, propriety will be satisfied, until we find a proper solution for her.”

 

“You will come with me, Rowie, and we will go and live with my sister Millicent in Leicester. Her Hannah is expecting her second child. She has an excellent midwife and a decent wet nurse at the ready, when your time comes. After that, we will have to make arrangements for you.”

Rowena let Meg’s words ripple over her like running water. Words that had no meaning except for one horrible notion; Meg wanted her to leave Ketteridge, and that was just too unbearable to grasp. Rowena could never leave Raventhorpe. Alex … no, she must not think of him that way, he was His Lordship, a man far above her station, far above the fallen woman she was. But not to see him each morning at breakfast, not to be near him when they visited tenants or talk about the improvements she planned for Ketteridge? She could never live without that. Raventhorpe – Alex – had become a vital part of her life over these few days. Rowena shook her head while she took Meg’s hands in hers.

“No, dearest Meg, I could never leave Ketteridge. I want to have my child here, under His Lordship’s roof and protection.”

Protection … how well Rowena recalled the warm joy that had flowed through her when Alex had spoken about his duty to protect her. She felt so safe at Ketteridge, safer than she had ever felt at Daveston Hall. Impulsively, she hugged Meg, feeling full of confidence and joy.

“Oh, Meg, I will be fine! Do not fret so. I am in good hands. His Lordship assured me of his support and protection. After the baby is born, I will have to reassess my situation, I grant you that; but for now I am safe, and that means all to me. Can you understand that?”

“But why, my pet, should you need to stay here to be safe? You have reached your majority now, since your twenty-first birthday was a few days ago. Therefore, you can come into your inheritance and make a life somewhere where they do not know you. I mean not now but after the child is born. In the meantime, …”

“Meg …” Rowena’s quiet address startled Meg, and she looked at her former ward with a sudden anxiety.

“Meg, there is nothing to inherit for me. Father bequeathed all to Roderick, leaving me to fend for myself. That is why I need to stay here as His Lordship’s housekeeper and make some money first.”

Meg’s mouth fell open. “But, Rowie, that cannot be true! Your father loved you so dearly! He cannot …”

“Yet he has,” Rowena cut her off, quite sharply. “As of yet, I am penniless and homeless. His Lordship kindly offered me employment, and I took it. That is the end of it.”

Rowena rose. “Now I must see to my duties but I will come up when I have finished.”

Meg stared after her dearest Rowie with utter disbelief and also, deep concern. Her dearest had fallen prey to the charms of the master of Ketteridge. Oh, it was a bad thing, indeed, because Meg was at an utter loss how to be of help.

 

“No.”

The little word – spoken with quiet emphasis – was out of his mouth before Alex could stop it. Silence followed. John Wallis seemed to have stopped breathing.

“Miss Drake stays,” Alex continued. “She is needed at Ketteridge House. And now, Mr Wallis, we will proceed to more urgent matters. I want you to go over my ledgers and the post that came this morning. We will work in the mornings, and in the afternoons, you can accompany me when I do my rounds on the estate. You ride, I presume?”

“Y … Yes, my lord, I do. Please show me the books.”

Alex reached for the small bell on his desk and rang it. He had bells on every table he used in every room he usually was in during the day or night. Soon Porter entered and asked what was required.

“Show Mr Wallis where we keep the ledgers and documents. Stay with him and lend a hand where necessary. I will be upstairs.”

“Aye, major. Will ye manage to …”

“Yes, carry on.”

With long strides, showing more confidence than he was truly experiencing, Alex left the library and went upstairs. He needed a break and he would accomplish it in the only way he knew; through sheer physical exertion.

 

On the second floor, the bedchambers were in a dismal state of neglect. When Alex’ father had still been alive, house parties had filled the manor on many occasions. Then these rooms would have been occupied and splendidly furnished. Alex’ brother Reggie had frequently entertained many guests, many of them carefully selected friends, who must have been – Alex realised that only now – of the same sexual disposition. Reggie had never used the rooms on the second floor, and when he came into financial difficulties, he had sold every scrap of furniture he could. The second floor was now mainly used for storage.

As soon as Alex was again fit enough to leave his bed, he had chosen the largest room, and instructed Porter to install a gymnasium. That way, Alex could physically exert himself, and he would frequently do boxing, stretching, weightlifting and push-ups, until he was exhausted. He desperately needed to build-up his lost strength.

 

Rowena knew she was a coward to have fled Meg and her many questions. Yet she needed to do her work, as was her duty, and the surest way to quell all upsetting thoughts. When she reached the second floor landing, Rowena first turned left.

This floor was new to her, and she wanted to make a survey of the rooms. They seemed abandoned but not empty. The long corridor stretching out before her was littered with spare furniture from the lower floors, and every item was buried under layers of dust. Cobwebs hung from the ceiling, reaching out to touch the cupboards, chairs, desks, and the many adornments one finds on the surfaces of side tables and pedestals. There were boxes filled with china figurines, oil lamps, stuffed animals and framed paintings, and everything was dull with dust. All doors were closed, except the last one at the very end of the corridor, from which sounds reached Rowena’s ears. Sounds of sparring, if she was correct. She recognized them from those her brother Roderick made when exercising his duelling skills in the gymnasium he installed when he came into his title.

Quietly, Rowena continued her way down the long corridor, opening doors and inspecting the rooms behind them as she went. She made notes in her small household ledger of what needed to be done in each room. Later she would come up here with her cleaning staff and assign the multitude of tasks that were required to have this floor set to rights.

When she finally reached the last room, Rowena froze and realised she must have come upon something that she was not supposed to witness. The Earl of Ketteridge, clad solely in black breeches, was vigorously pounding his fists into a large sand-filled bag hanging from the ceiling.

With a jolt of panic tightening her insides, Rowena’s eyes quickly darted around the room. It did not contain any furniture safe a washstand and a plain wooden chair, but there were other items lying around on the bare wooden floor. In a corner, a heap of black balls was stacked neatly against the wall, and beside it, a large wooden crate showed ropes, sticks and other things unknown to Rowena. This was clearly a sort of gymnasium.

Rowena’s gaze came to rest upon the earl’s semi-naked form, and her throat constricted with sudden lack of air. No wonder, for he was utterly magnificent.

His torso was toned to perfection, his dark skin, the colour of polished bronze tightening over hard muscles. Flat nipples showed through a sprinkle of dark hair that circled them. The fine mat of hair tapered into a line pointing to the rim of his breeches. Breeches that moulded his powerful thighs and led one’s gaze to his well-shaped legs and strong bare feet.

Rowena blinked when she noticed the large scar that ran over the right side of his abdomen. It spread from beneath his armpit to his navel in a diagonal line. A thick, red, ragged line flanked on both sides by a row of red dots, where the surgeon had stitched him up. All saints in heaven, it was a miracle that he had survived a wound like that. Yet the scar did nothing to mar his perfect body; he was all strong, virile male.

Due to his semi-blindness, Raventhorpe was unaware of Rowena’s presence, and she was free to feast her eyes on him, as he was pounding at the sandbag with hard yet well-balanced blows, that made the muscles of his shoulders ripple and roll.

Rowena stood in the doorway, utterly still and mesmerized. Heat erupted all over her body, and the nipples of her breasts, already swollen by her pregnancy, achingly tightened with sudden desire. Almost instantly, she felt a painful ache throbbing low in her abdomen, while the skin of her inner thighs dampened. She could feel moisture pooling at her core, hot and wet like warm honey. How well she knew these sensations; they were lust and passion, and she had experienced them with Peter when they had lain together in her aunt’s house in York.

Shame lanced through her, together with raw sexual need. What business had she, a pregnant woman who had almost reached the end of her term, to feel desire for a man she was not married to? But there it was – she longed for Alexander Raventhorpe with a fierceness which left her burning with sudden urging need.

Realisation that she was shamelessly trespassing hit her, and she forced herself to turn away. Her little notebook fell to the bare wooden floor with a loud bang.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Ten

Chapter Six

 

Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, December11th, 1815

 

Alex swung round, took one large step towards the sound, and tripped over his pile of discarded clothes. A split second before he landed heavily on the solid, wooden floor, he regretted throwing them where they would fall. A second later, he hit his head on the wash stand. His poor vision blurred even further when a sharp pain shot through his skull. He had forgotten the golden rule of blindness never to be careless with objects lying about neglected.

“Oh, heavens, my lord!”

Hands turned him onto his back and positioned his throbbing head onto the warm, soft cushion of a woman’s lap. Hands that were soft and gentle. They created fire wherever they touched his sweaty, bare skin. A woman’s voice he knew all too well crooned and commiserated, while the hands smoothed his damp hair from his face.

“My lord! You are bleeding … I must get help … please, stay and lie still …”

Time to intervene. He reached out and grasped her arm. She could not, must not go away.

“No, I am fine, Miss Drake. Just give me a hand getting to my feet.”

For one frozen moment in time, she stilled, as if debating with herself over what to do next. Then she rose from her knees, and slid her shoulder under his arm, thus allowing him to get his bearings and stand upright. Alex knew that it was not the blow to his head that made his knees buckle, although that part of his anatomy hurt like the devil.

“My lord, you must let me tend to the gash on your head. It is bleeding rather severely.”

“Help me to that chair by the window, please. You will find everything you need in the closet under the wash stand.”

They hobbled to the chair, Alex’ head now pounding with a dull pain. Lord! He must have banged it much harder than he had thought at first. He could feel the trickle of blood warm on his cheek. Rowena kept a firm hold on his body, the top of her head level with his chin. He knew that because her soft hair was tickling it. The scent she used – lily-of-the-valley – teased his sensitive nostrils. He would – Alex knew – recognize that scent always and everywhere.

Rowena lowered Alex onto the chair and felt him shiver under her hands. The room was icy cold, but he was sweating. His skin felt cold and clammy, and Rowena worried. Should she call for help? Porter would not be far away, she knew. As if he guessed what she was about to do, Alex again grabbed her arm, startling her with the warmth of his hand.

“Miss Drake, please, let us get on with this. Are you perhaps not familiar with tending wounds?”

“Yes, yes I am, my lord. I will proceed, then.”

Rowena searched the room until she spotted a blanket. She draped it around his upper body, involuntary touching the scar on his side. He shivered again, and let out a soft groan.

“Is that a remnant from the Waterloo battle, too?” she asked, while she hastily turned to the wash stand and retrieved a basket with fresh cloths and rolls of bandages. She poured some water from the large pitcher into the basin.

“Yes, sword’s tip cut across me while I was down,” Alex replied. “I was lucky that Porter ran the bastard through just as he brought down his blade. It was the blow of a dying man and it did not cut deep enough to give me a lethal wound. Hurt like the devil, though. As you can see, it is still a bit tender to the touch. Kept me in a fever for weeks, it did. Porter used to bathe me in ice water, trice a day, just to lower it.”

“And … your head? Was it badly hurt?”

“It was. Concussion and skull fracture, and an open wound. It is a wonder that did not do me in entirely. But, as you can see, I recovered.”

Carefully, Rowena began to clean the gash on his temple. It was not deep, but it needed precise handling, lest it would leave a scar.”

“Not entirely,” she said, very softly.”

“No.” Then, as if he needed to explain himself, “I apologize for the horrible sight I am.”

Rowena swallowed down the large lump that clogged her throat. “It … it is not horrible …”

She stilled, her hands still cradling his head after her examination of his wound. He shifted, and the blanket slid from his shoulders, as one of his hands came up to rest on her hip. Warmth flooded her, moist once more forming on her inner thighs. Her nipples puckered painfully as they rubbed against her corset. Rowena gasped with unbearable need, when Alex’ hand moved to her abdomen. She had so missed this. The closeness to a man, the feeling of his hands on her. Her gaze drifted to his tensed face, his sensual mouth, and she knew she could look at him as much as she liked. He would not know she was doing it. In response to his caress, her fingers wandered to his thick, black hair. It was soft and warm on her skin.

A beast Alex thought long since dead reared its head. It had been ages since he savoured the feeling of a woman, all lush curves, warm and soft. He was hard – of course, he was. His blood pounded in his ears at the thought of lifting her skirts and sliding his fingers over the skin of her inner thighs. His heart missed several beats at the thought of kissing her, of digging his hands into her bodice to savour her breasts.

Yet he could not, could he?

This was Rowena, his unmarried, yet pregnant housekeeper, who still mourned her fallen cavalry man. He, Alex, had no right fondling her, lusting after her, longing to bed her. He could never bed her while she was heavy with child. Nor any time later, when …

Suddenly, as if in accusatory response to his unruly thoughts, the child moved quite violently against his hand. He jerked it away in horror. God … what a lascivious, unworthy lowlife he was!

“Leave me be, Miss Drake, and go about your work. Send Porter up. He will fix me, he has done so many times in the past.”

His tone must have been cold as the Arctic, he reckoned, for his housekeeper ran as hard as she could. Touching her had been utterly despicable of him, and he had no inkling as to how he could right this terrible wrong. What had possessed him? This was not his way. Ah, but he had lost his way a long time ago, had he not? He had lost himself on June 18th, and no matter what he did, he could not remedy Waterloo’s wrong.

“Major? Wha’ the devil ‘appened?  Miss Drake comes runnin’ down those stairs like if she’s seen a bleedin’ ghost! Oh, an’ it’s you who’s bleedin’! Come ‘ere, now wha’ ‘ave ye done to yesself, eh?”

Porter began tending to Alex’ wound, muttering and fussing. “Did she did this te ye? I shouldn’ wonder, she’s such a feisty woman! Wha’ ‘ave ye done te ‘ave ‘er strike at ye, that’s wha’ I wanna know!”

 

Rowena was halfway down the stairs, when she recovered enough for her senses to slow down. She must not risk a fall by losing her footing . When she reached her bedchamber on the first floor, concern had replaced the panic. Because that was what she had felt, just then, when Alex touched her. Yet also … she struggled to find the right word, then settled for a mixture of joy and contentment. She had liked his touch, and very much so.

Alex … since when had her employer stopped being ‘His Lordship’ to become a real, very attractive male who reeled her senses enough to crave for more than just a slight touch to her abdomen? Rowena’s knees suddenly buckled under that realisation. She stumbled to the vast security of her bed, slid under the coverlet and folded her arms over her swollen belly. She turned onto her side and pulled up her legs as far as they would go. Trembling like a leaf in the wind, she hugged her abdomen, finding comfort in her baby’s jerky moves.

This is you, Rowena Drake. Pregnant and without a husband. You have no business in loving the way Alex touches you. You have no right longing for carnal relations with him. You have succumbed before and look where it led you. Feelings of lust have brought you this far, so learn your lesson and be sensible. Alexander Raventhorpe, fifth earl of Ketteridge is forbidden territory.

For some reason, that notion spilled tears from her eyes she had not known were there. Rowena found solace in those tears, rolling over her cheeks without the slightest effort. They just rolled, and kept rolling for several minutes.

Yet Alex had also been affected, had he not? Was it foolish of her to assume so? Or was what she had witnessed mere wishful thinking?

No, he had at least been attracted to her nearness, the proof of it blatantly clear for her to see. She could still recollect the shock she felt when she looked down his long, muscular torso to find the hard bulge in his black, clinging trousers. New heat washed through her, and she shamefully pushed it away. No, no – she had no claim on him, under no circumstances!

Rowena sat up, swung her legs from the bed and went to her washstand to cool her face with fresh water from the pitcher. She pulled the pins from her hair and brushed it vigorously for a while. She gathered it into a loose bun at the nape of her neck, dabbed a few droplets of her cologne behind her ears and looked at her pale reflection in the mirror. Then she straightened and strode out of her room.

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Eleven

Chapter Six (continued)

Feeling gingerly at the bandage on his brow, Alex groaned. “Could you not have made it just a tiny bit smaller, Porter? I am sure to scare Mrs Hall and Miss Drake, when next they set eyes on me.”

“It’s a big gash, major. I ‘ad to do three stitches. Ye know ye’re lucky not t’ ‘ave broken yer skull again, don’t ye? Ye really must be plenty more careful in the future. An’ wha’ about ridin’ a horse? I don’ like it, an’ well ye know it!”

“Let it be, man. I had to stop cowering indoors at some point. You or Miss Drake can accompany me when I have to go on estate matters.”

“Ah, and why did I ‘ave the feeling I jolly well know who’s gonna accompany ye? It won’t be me, aint it? Ye’ve taken a fancy to the chit, is wha’ I’m reckoning.”

Trust Porter to try and lure him out, Alex thought, inwardly chuckling at the too obvious attempt.

“Might I remind you of your position as my subordinate, Sergeant Porter? As the lowest in rank, you owe me respect, remember? Mind your bloody mouth in the future, if you please.”

Porter did not respond but turned away from his master and began tidying up the room, grumbling under his breath. Alex stood and … found himself at a loss as to where exactly he was in the room. Damnation! The whole wretched business of him banging his head had brought on a complete loss of orientation.

He took a deep breath and focussed on where he had been when Rowena was tending to him. In no way would he ask Porter to point him in the right direction, blast it all.

He had been sitting in an armchair, and if no one had moved that chair since the last time he was in the room, he would have been with his back to the large windows. Alex turned … and saw the deep red ball of the setting sun. It shone right into his eyes, although its contours were blurred. Right, so now he knew where the door was. He walked toward it and swung to the left when he reached the corridor. Soon he stretched out his right hand and found the banister on the landing. After that, it was easy to descend the stairs and find his room on the first floor.

He sank onto the deep armchair next to the fireplace and stared into the flames. That was when he realized that his vision had become noticeably clearer …

 

Armed with her small oil lamp and taper, Rowena did the rounds to lighten candles. It was part of her tasks as a housekeeper. Dusk settled in early, now that Christmas was fast approaching.

She began downstairs and lit the large candelabras in the drawing room. The library was next, but John Wallis was working there, and he had already lit several candles on the earl’s vast desk. Rowena told him that dinner would be served at seven.

“Thank you, my girl, but Mrs Hall said she would bring up a tray for Meg and me in our rooms.”

“Pish and nonsense, John. I am sure His Lordship will welcome the company. He is a lonely man, John. Nobody except his solicitor seems to come here, ever. I shall ask him whether he has any objections.”

“Well … Rowie, to be honest, I do not feel at ease with those arrangements. We are far below His Lordship’s station. We are part of his staff. You on the other hand …”

“No, John. My station is also below His Lordship’s. At one point, we might have been on appropriately equal terms, but now, I am also part of the staff. But John, in the few days, I have been here, I have come to know enough of the earl to be certain that he will not make objections.”

With that remark, she left the library and climbed the stairs. It was true; Lord Raventhorpe would not be overly insisting on society rules.

The first floor bedchambers were in excellent condition, thanks to Rowena’s hard work over the few days she had been at Ketteridge. They housed the earl, Porter, Rowena herself and now, the Wallisses. Only four of the six rooms were presently occupied, but the rest was also at the ready, in case an unexpected guest arrived. Rowena tapped on the double doors leading to the earl’s suite.

 

Alex had meant to have a quick wash and then dress for dinner. He had a mind of asking the Wallisses and Rowena to share the evening meal, since formalities were unnecessary in the absence of other guests. He had shed all his clothes and washed himself in his dressing room, finding it not as difficult as it had been to do it properly without Porter’s usual help. It still astonished him, but he could almost imagine that his vision was indeed clearing. Now he donned his dressing gown and touched the wall to find the door to his room.

He had not bothered to light candles, since they were of little help to him. Unless the large ceiling chandelier and the four ones in the room were lit, candlelight was usually too weak to provide him with enough light. In daylight, on a sunny day, he could also vaguely discern objects, so in this time of the year, with the gloomy days of winter, even daylight was inadequate. Therefore, it was rather normal that Alex felt disorientated when he entered his bedroom. And, to be honest, a bit queasy. His head still hurt like hell.

A faint gasp reached his oversensitive ears, and as he turned towards it, he promptly lost his balance, to land on hands and knees on the vast carpet.

“Alex! Oh, heavens!”

Again Rowena’s hands were there to support him, Alex registered. She had used his given name, filling him with an unexpected but most welcome joy. Yet he had a distinct notion that she had done it in an impulse which she might regret in an instant, when she would come to realise it.

Christ, his head was killing him! Alex retched in sudden nausea, sweat breaking out all over his body.

“My lord … my lord …” That was the last thing he heard, before the blackness engulfed him.

 

Rowena was frantic! What was she to do? Alex was thoroughly ill, that much was clear!

“Step away, Miss Drake. I can handle him.” Porter’s deep voice rumbled above her, and Rowena heaved a sigh of sheer relieve.

“He collapsed, Mr Porter! I think he has a concussion. Oh, God! What are we to do?”

Porter did not reply but lifted Alex’ torso from the floor, then shoved his big hands under his master’s arms and began dragging him toward the large four-poster, that occupied a part of the wall.

Rowena suddenly came to her senses again. She hurried to go and help Porter as he hauled Alex’ large body onto the bed. Together they managed to install him under the covers. “Go for a doctor, Mr Porter, and ask Mrs Wallis to come and help me.” She spoke with as much authority she could muster, and to her surprise, Porter nodded.

“You stay ‘ere, Miss Drake, while I go fer Dr Orme. I think that last bang on ‘is ‘ead was too much.”

Alone with Alex, Rowena sighed and swallowed back her fear. She filled a bowl with fresh water and began bathing Alex’ wide brow, carefully avoiding the bandage on it. That had been what had her in turmoil, earlier on, when she had stepped into the room. The enormous size of that bandage suggested an equally large wound, but when Rowena cautiously lifted it, she saw to her relief that it covered but a gash of barely an inch. Porter had applied three tiny stitches with a finesse one rarely witnessed, even with regular surgeons.

Gazing at Alex’ pale face, Rowena worried about the new lines bracketing his long nose and white-lipped mouth. Touching his sunken cheek with the back of her hand, she found it warm and damp. He might be developing a fever, she knew, and that was an ill omen.

Meg entered together with two maids carrying hot water and bandages. Porter was high on their heels to send all the women out of the room. Rowena refused, declaring that it was her task as His Lordship’s housekeeper to see to his requirements. Porter stared at her for a second, then nodded.

Rowena remained by the bed, ready to help the valet if needed, and listened to Porter, tending to his master, all the while grumbling under his breath. She had to strain her ears to understand what he said.

“Yeah, and ain’t that jus’ wha’ ‘e needed, eh? Another fever burnin’ ‘im up, jus’ like the las’ time! ‘E were almos’ gone, back in August. Jus’ barely managed te keep ‘im alive. Drat, major, wha’ ‘ave ye done te yesself now?”

“Mr Porter, let us not lose faith. His Lordship is a strong man, and you nursed him from a bad spell earlier, did you not?”

“I ‘ad a ‘ell of a time, miss. Fever nearly killed ‘im, ye know. I ‘ave to bathe ‘im, that’s the only thing I can do.”

“I nursed my father during his last illness, Mr Porter, so if you would be so kind to lift him, I can bathe his chest.”

Rowena and Porter worked together on sponging Alex’ face and torso, then drying him with a fresh towel. All through the ministrations, Alex stayed unconscious, which worried Rowena exceedingly. From her conversations with Mrs Hall, she had gathered that he had indeed been on the brink of death, just a few months ago. Apparently, he was not back to his usual strength. The arrival of Dr Orme and Meg interrupted her and Porter’s work.