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.
BBC TO TURN ‘THE BIRDS’INTO A NEW TV DRAMA!
This has not been officially confirmed yet, but, as ‘Digital Spy’ reports today, BBC is planning on turning famous THE BIRDS novel byDaphne du Maurier into a TV movie. Unlike the famous Hitchcock’s classic movie, this one will be true to the novel with the action being set in British Cornwall! The new television adaptation will be set in picturesque rural Cornwall, where a farmhand and his community is being terrorised by flocks of birds and seagulls shortly after the end of the Second World War.
TOM HOLLAND TO LEAD‘BENEATH A SCARLET SKY’ WORLD WAR 2 BOOK ADAPTATIONSpeaking of adaptations, current bestselling hit by Mark Sullivan WW2 novel BENEATH A SCARLET SKY will be made into a movie with Tom Holland who will be Pino Lella a normal Italian teenager living an idyllic life in Italy, until bombs begin falling on Milan and word of Nazi atrocities begin to circulate. While waiting to join the fight, Lello joins an underground railroad helping Jews escape over the Alps, guiding hundreds of Jews to safety in a year. On his 18th birthday, Lello is forced to enlist with the German Army, and is immediately assigned as a personal driver to Adolf Hitler’s left hand, General Hans Leyers. This fly on the wall in the upper echelons of the Third Reich positions him to be recruited by the Allies as a spy. Known to Allied Intelligence only as “Observer,” Lella endures the horrors of WWII and the Nazi occupation by secretly feeding intel to the Allies that was strategically important enough to turn the tides of the war. When Lella’s courage falters, he is bolstered by his love for a young woman named Anna, and for the life he dreams they will one day share.
PERIOD SET FRIDAY: BRADLEY JAMES, SEAN BEAN, DANIEL SHARMAN, RAOUL BOVA, SARAH PARISH JOIN ‘MEDICI: MASTERS OF FLORENCE’ EPIC TV SERIES 2ND SEASON!
The most beautiful piece of info ever as the highlight of the coming period set ! Those who know the spy probably remember when I said I was gonna ditch MEDICI: MASTERS OF FLORENCE after it was shockingly announced that Richard Madden won’t be starring in the second season, but now that the new cast has been announced for the sophomore run of the magnificent epic TV series I’m definitely watching since our dearest King Arthur Bradley James (Yessss…)has been cast in the role of Giuliano Medici! The main star of the second season, which starts shooting next month, will, however, be Daniel Sharman as his brother Lorenzo the Magnificent, the grandson of Madden’s Cosimo Medici who was the star of the first season. The eight part series will also include Julian Sands as Lorenzo and Giuliano’s father, Piero, and Sebastian De Souza as their friend, Sandro Botticelli. The pope will be played, believe it or not, by sinfully gorgeous Italian superstar Raoul Bova and Sean Bean will portray the family’s greatest rival and enemy Jacoppo Pazzi. Sarah Parish (who is no stranger to epic series as she already starred in Pillars of the Earth and Atlantis) will play the new, older version of Lorenzo’s mother while Alessandra Mastronardi will play his mistress! Italian RAI and Netflix are producing the series again to air it sometime next year. De Souza, Sharman and Bova, left to right, will star in the second seasonMASTERS OF FLORENCE
The second season of the best epic series in last ten years, will be set 20 years after the events of the first. A young Lorenzo, the grandson of Richard Madden’s character Cosimo from the first series, is forced totake over the family bank, which has been mismanaged by his father. As Lorenzo, his brother, and Botticelli set about trying to make Florence a great financial and cultural center, they face off against the Pazzi family, and Pope Sixtus IV. Alessandra Mastronardi and Sarah Parish will be the female leads
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.”