The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Crestwell Abbey, Cumberland, April 17th, 1816

Rowena laid both of her hands on his beloved face. “Alex, I love you so much. I now know that what I felt for Johnston was not love at all, only infatuation. You are my true and only love, Alex, my strong, handsome husband.”

Alex had only one question. “What can you have seen in me to have you love me, Rowie?”

She had only one answer. “I have seen you, my love. You, the man with the very large heart filled to the brim with love and commitment for everything and everyone that needs his help.”

Rowena swallowed as tenderness threatened to close her throat. “Alex, my love, when you rescued me from a cold and certain death, when I felt your strong arms around me, when I came to rest against your warm, strong chest, I knew I had come home at last. I needed someone to give me back my purpose in life. I was lost and you made me find myself again. But … as I discovered soon enough, you needed rescuing, too. You were lost when you were forced to end your life as a soldier, so lost that you retired here and shut out the world.”

“That is so true, my darling. I lost all hope after Waterloo, but having you here restored my interest in the rest of my life. Thank you for rescuing me, my love.”

“No, Alex, thank God for giving us the chance to rescue each other.”

She threw her arms around him and fiercely kissed him.

And he kissed her back with all his love singing in his heart.  And, of course, exchanging heated kisses was not enough.

Rowena shivered when Alex drew her to her feet, turned her around, and began unbuttoning her gown. Kissing his way down her exposed back, he let his hands glide to her front and lifted the gown away from her. Good Lord! Rowena gasped in anticipation when he skimmed the top of her corset with his thumbs until her nipples were hard inside the stiff material. The blood was pounding in her ears as he started undoing her laces. She arched her back and lifted her arms to permit him to remove her corset. Thrilling sparks were swirling through her breasts and abdomen, all the way down to her core. She felt hot and wet there, pulsing in need for him. A low moan escaped her when he drew her shift over her head, then he scooped her up to lay her on their bed. The only items of clothing that remained were her drawers and stockings. Her drawers were wet with desire, and she put a hand against her core, gasping when a spear of desire ran through her.

Alex heard it and felt a hot, satisfying stab of masculine pride. She wanted him as much as he wanted her, but he was not going to rush things, not now. Positioning himself at the foot of the bed, he stretched out his arms.

“Come, my love. Uncover me, please.” He had used his most throaty voice, and it had not been hard to do that. His wife rose to her knees and came toward him. Slowly, she began unbuttoning his coat, touching her breasts as she did so. Holy Christ, but she had learned a thing or two in their marriage! When his coat was off, she started with his waistcoat, stroking her belly with slow movements, leaving him so aroused he had to draw on his control as best as he could. Minx! Dear, sexy minx …

When Rowena reached for his shirt buttons, she was so thoroughly aroused that she almost hurt down there. It was an immense relief to be able to let her hands roam over his broad chest, smooth velvet over granite. Oh, how splendid he was! Her next task was to free him from his trousers and cradle his engorged manhood. She heard his gasp of pleasure when she took his balls into her hands, massaging and stroking them softly.

“Christ, Rowie … stop or I swear I will come into your hands …”

“Oh, but we cannot permit that, can we, my love?” She retreated to the head of the bed and lay down on her back. “Let us do away with all these interfering items of clothing, my lover”, she purred and began stripping off her drawers.

Alex swallowed as he toed off his shoes, then pulled off his stockings. Rowena was doing the same in a slow, languorous way that brought saliva to his parched mouth. He was naked when she finally spread her legs, exposing herself to him. In seconds, he was on top of her, entering her with one swift thrust. She came immediately and hard, crying out in delight, and he followed her, roaring in extasy, when his seed gushed into her. So far for proceeding slowly, he winced. But oh, how delicious this had been.

Spent and exhausted, Alex turned onto his side, taking Rowena with him. They snuggled spoon-wise under the covers, and he buried his nose into her glorious dark hair. “Rowie, I love you so much … I love you, love you, love you …”

Rowena chuckled and turned toward him, never leaving the cocoon of his arms. “And I love you, Alex. Very, very much.”

She paused, kissed his stubble-strewn chin and sighed. “When I first spoke to you in the library, I was actually relieved that you could not see me. I am sorry, Alex, but there it is. When you offered me your hand because you deemed it unwise that I should stand overlong in my condition, but … do you remember that moment, dearest?”

“Yes,” Alec said hoarsely, “oh, yes. You took my hand, and a jolt of awareness shot up my entire arm. Christ, Rowie, it scared me out of my wits.”

“I had the same experience, my love. I was instantly attracted to you and scolding myself for my silly reaction. I would scold myself many times after until I realized I was in love with you.”

“Oh, and when was that, my beauty?”

“Oh, no, it is your turn now, my lord! I have bared my heart enough to you!”

Her laugh tinkled so happily that Alex felt a distinctive tug at his heart. “I think you know very well when exactly you captured my heart, love.” His voice almost broke as he remembered the moment.

“No,” she whispered, “please, tell me.”

Alex kissed the top of her little pert nose, marvelling that she had to ask. “Do you remember when I asked you if you would allow me to feel you with my fingers?”

A rosy hue flushed her entire face, causing him to be aroused once more. She was so beautiful, so innocent and spontaneous, his dear little wife.

“That was rather clever of me, was it not? Although, at the time, I got what I deserved, my love. I fell deeply in love with the feel of your lovely face. God, Rowie, you do not know how fiercely I wanted to kiss you then and there.”

“So it was love at the first feel, was it?” she whispered, caressing his beloved face with a gentle hand.

“It was …,” he croaked, laying his hand over hers.

They fell silent for a while, just enjoying being together. Being in love with each other.

Then Rowena whispered the words he so longed to hear.

“Let us go home, dearest. To Ketteridge House …”

The End

 

Dear Reader,

I hope you’ve enjoyed my story as much as I enjoyed writing it. Please let me know what you think about Rowena’s and Alex’ story. Post a review on this site or e-mail me on www.luce-fleming.be. Thank you for reading me.

Luce

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Crestwell Abbey, Cumberland, April 17th, 1816

Racing after his wife, Alex found her on the verge of closing the door to their rooms. For a few seconds, she stared at him, her cheeks still wet with tears. He stood absolutely still and kept quiet, gazing at her with what he hoped was all the love he felt for her.

It was time, he knew. She must know at this very moment that his feelings for her were true and deep. He could not force her to let him in, both to the room or to her heart. She had only just rejected him when his only wish had been to comfort her. He could, of course, not blame her. What had he to offer her, now that she would be an heiress in control of her own money. He had decided long ago that she would have independent financial resources and would settle the matter with his solicitor as soon as they returned home. She would receive a portion of his income on top of her own money, yet he had an inkling that the money subject was what had chased her from him, just now.

He waited, his heart pounding with dread. To his infinite relief, she stepped back.

“Rowena,” he said, his voice husky because of the enormous lump in his throat, “please do not shut me out of your grief? I want to share this with you as I long to share everything in our life.  I …”

“Liar!” She stepped back even further. “You want to share? Just now when you know I will bring money into our marriage? Before this, you took me in because we were so perfectly matched, remember? A destitute, fallen woman with a child underway and a former soldier damaged by battle, unable to see what he was marrying, so it was of no consequence what she looked like and what she had or did not have. You did your duty to a fault, even to so far as to protect me from danger. I had never any doubts that you would do so, since you are an honourable man and a true soldier. However, you never even liked me, my lord, you never showed any hint of affection, but now you do, now that you know I bring blunt into the estate. We …”

Now it was his turn to interrupt, he found. To stop her silly ranting, he kissed her, restraining her when she would have fought against his embrace. He forced himself to be gentle and not hurt her. It took several moments for her to stop struggling. Her head came resting against his chest, and she was panting with sobs of frustration.

Gently, he lifted her chin and kissed the top of her nose. “Like you? Feel affection for you? My darling girl, have you not understood that I am head over heels in love with you? My silly girl, I love you so much it hurts. I want us to return forthwith to Ketteridge House and start our marriage in earnest. I want to fill our house with children, preferably six or seven, boys, girls, it does not signify. And money? Blast it all to hell, Rowena! I fell in love with you the moment I picked you up on my snowy driveway and felt you, so alive, so lovely, like a balm to my wounded heart.”

Her eyes were pools of molten chocolate, her mouth was trembling. “I cannot bear the thought that you might not be sincere, Alex. I am asking you therefore why you have waited so long to tell me all this. All these long months, you have loved me but never said so?”

Of course, she would be suspicious. He had not exactly been forthcoming and honest with her, had he? “Come,” he said, “let us sit for a while.” He directed her to the settee, then cradled one of her dainty hands between his large ones.

“I have been a recluse for all my thirty-one years, Rowie. Well, not literally but figuratively speaking, that is. My childhood was uneventful but lonely, although that never occurred to me before I was twelve, and Reggie sent me to Eton. My father was a distant yet terribly frightening presence upstairs, while I was basking in the loving attention of all the downstairs womenfolk. On the rare occasions that I ventured beyond the green baize door into the house proper, I had no inkling at all that there was my father, the man who sired me, living there. I knew Reggie also lived there sometimes, so as a child I only climbed the stairs to go searching for him when the servants said he was back for holidays. I do not think I realized Reggie was my brother until I was ten or eleven.”

Rowena’s heart clenched with pity as she squeezed his hand. How terrible that must have been for a lonely, motherless, little boy. She could not fathom how a parent could be so cruel.

“Eton was a pleasant revelation to me,” Alex continued. “Scores of boys of my own age and older, all trying to make me do what they wanted me to do, and not succeeding. I was big for my age, and the grooms in our stables had thought me all the tricks to pummel someone into submission. I loved fisticuffs and thoroughly enjoyed punishing the bullies at school. Being raised by servants also taught me how to avoid punishment and how to cast the blame on my bullies so that they took the punishment in my stead. No wonder I became the hero of all the small, slender boys after I beat their nemeses into a bloody pulp.”

“You must be exaggerating, Alex. I cannot picture you bloodying anyone.” Secretly, Rowena was overjoyed that he was finally opening up to her.

“Oh, but it is true, sweetheart. It became even worse at Cambridge, where I took boxing lessons. I got a solid reputation of someone not to be trifled with,” Alex chuckled.

“What happened after Cambridge?” Rowena asked. She was thrilled to hear more of him.

Alex sighed. “I still had not learned my lesson concerning my father. When I came home, I tried to acquaint myself better with him, but he immediately made it clear that I was not to live at Ketteridge House. He had purchased a commission for me with the Guards. It was not what I had wished for but even so, I went to the barracks in London and started my career. I fought for King and country for the next ten years. I was in the Peninsula, France  and Flanders, until Waterloo stopped my military days with the consequence you know.”

“You never saw your father again?”

“No, I came home for the funeral and was told by his solicitor that I was not mentioned in his will. Reggie offered me a portion of the money, but by that time I was thoroughly annoyed with him for not having married yet. I knew he needed an heir and I was absolutely terrified that the abysmal task of solving that particular problem could be mine eventually. We quarrelled, and I left and did not come back until after Waterloo. Reggie died on the eve of the battle, so I never saw him again, either.”

“What a sad story. You must have been very lonely, Alex.”

“Not while I was in the army, no. I got used to the notion that I never had a true place I could call home, travelling Europe with the troops. Yet that was not the worst of it, sweetheart. In fact, all this elaborate narration was to tell you why love did not figure as something important to me. Who was I to love? Reggie was the only one who ever gave a damn tuppence about me, so I guess I must have loved him, or sort of.”

“Oh, Alex …”

“I never asked myself what love was or could be, because I had no one to love. I never had a ladylove or a mistress. I had women for bed sport, was all, and I was not even profligate in that.”

He looked his wife in the eye, gently squeezing her hand. “Until I met you, my darling, I never knew what love was. The deep, solid feeling of belonging to that one woman who installs true happiness and fills one with pride and bliss. When I finally realized I could never have happiness without you, my sweet love, I knew that I loved you.”

He sighed once more. Sudden fear, hot and painful, wrenched through him.

“Rowena, I am bearing my heart to you. Please do not trample it, my sweet.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Seven (completed)

Crestwell Abbey, Cumberland, April 17th, 1816

All this was so unexpected for Rowena that she felt completely baffled. When the door flew open to Lord Carlisle and his constables, she was not even startled as much as she was by the new revelations by Bleak. For the sake of prudency, she took a few steps back.

“I find all this a bit far-fechted, Mr Bleak,” Lord Carlisle said, his voice calm but firm. “You seem to have taken your solicitor’s task a bit lightly, do you not agree? Why have you not examined the new will more thoroughly, if you were in possession of the old one?”

He gave the man no time to reply but addressed his own man. “Mr Beaumont, will you please do Mr Bleak’s work for him and scrutinize both documents?”

At that moment, Alex stepped forward. “We will do this together, Mr Beaumont. No offence, but I need to protect my wife’s interests.”

Rowena’s heart skipped a beat at these words. She looked at Alex, took in his strong face, locked tightly in concentration, as he skimmed the document in the solicitor’s hand. He fought for her and her affairs, she realized. Why? Because they were also his affairs?

Oh, God … was that why Alex had been so diligent, almost obsessed in pursuing Roderick?

The searing pain of understanding Alex’ motives was excruciating, yet Rowena managed to conceal it. Nobody could know of her crushed hopes, ever. She forced herself to listen to what was said.

 

“This is outrageous,” Alex growled. “Do I understand this correctly and has Daveston written a fraudulent will after his father died?”

“Indeed, my lord. As you can see all too clearly, the two handwritings do not match, nor does the signature.” Mr Beaumont looked at Bleak accusingly. “You, sir, are an accomplice to forgery.”

“Horace Bleak,” Lord Carlisle intoned. “I am arresting you for forgery and fraudulence. You will appear before a court of law and your assets will be confiscated if you are found guilty. Take him away.”

Bleak’s wailing did not stop him from being dragged away. Alex, however, returned to the matter at hand.

“Mr Beaumont, we need to recuperate my wife’s inheritance funds from this wreckage. Do you have a notion as to how?”

Rowena stopped listening, as this confirmed Alex’ motives all too clearly. She went out to the coach they had taken to get there and asked the driver to bring her back to Crestwell Abbey. Emma needed to be fed and Rowena had dallied long enough away from her darling.

By the time she got there, Emma’s nanny Bessie had already done her duty by feeding Emma some of the fine grain gruel she asked Lord Carlisle’s cook to prepare exclusively for the baby. Emma seemed to thrive on it but Rowena needed her to breastfeed anyway, since her breasts were painfully full of milk. She would need to ask Richard Orme how she could solve that problem.

As it happened, the doctor entered the nursery just as she was done feeding Emma.

“Rowena, my dear, I wonder if you could spare me a moment.”

The expression on his honest face was troubled, so Rowena had dire forebodings. “Roderick is worse, I presume?”

Richard winced. “He is gone, Rowena. He died an hour ago without regaining consciousness. It is probably for the best, because consciousness would have brought excruciating agony. I am so very sorry, my dear.”

Rowena handed Emma to Bessie and stood. “I will see him now, Richard.”

They had laid out Roderick in the room where he had been brought to after the fire. Rowena’s half-brother seemed peaceful in death, although it was clear to her that his face had been worked on. The horrible traces of the fire were hidden under a thick layer of face powder, and Roderick looked magnificent in his most splendid attire.

Rowena felt something kin to bereavement but no sorrow or sentiment of loss. She realized that those feelings had been plaguing her a long time ago, in fact so long ago that they had faded to almost nothing. That was why she was surprised when a single tear began rolling down her cheek. And then another one, and yet another one.

An arm came around her shoulder, and the next moment she was burying her face into Alex’ wide chest and sobbing disconsolately. “Oh, my love, I am so very sorry. Hush, my sweet, hush. Roderick is in a better place now.”

 

Alex was in an even greater agony than his darling little wife was. He wished he could take all that stupid grief away from her, grief that was not even deserved by the selfish bounder her half-brother had been. Every quiet sob she uttered was like a knife to the heart, and he felt so utterly helpless that he gritted his teeth in rage. He raked his brain for something that would distract her from her sorrow.

“Mr Beaumont is confident that he can recuperate at least a part of your inheritance, my dear. Lord Carlisle will no doubt give him permission to examine Daveston’s finances.”

She stiffened considerably in his arms before tearing herself away. Baffled to the extreme, Alex stood by helplessly when she ran from the room. What the devil!

 

 

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Crestwell Abbey, Cumberland, April 17th, 1816

Alex watched Rowena lift the Holland cover from a small escritoire. It was of Louis XV style in delicate rosewood with mother-of-pearl inlay and had multiple small drawers in its upper part.

“Of course, you will find nothing in it, my lady,” Philby warned. “The master made certain that everything was removed before we were allowed to take it from the room.”

His wife was touching the inlays with a trembling hand, tears in her eyes, so Alex could not help himself. “We could take it with us if you are fond of it, Rowena.”

“How well I remember this,” she breathed. “My mother often used to take me on her lap when she was writing letters. She taught me every hidden little hole the desk possessed. I doubt Roderick knew them all, since he never came to her chambers. He was away for the best part of the year to London or elsewhere anyway. I do not think he would have known this hidden space.”

She drew the fingers of her right hand under the top of the inlaid desk until they met a hidden catch. The top went up, revealing a shallow section almost as broad as the top itself. In there was a slim bundle of papers wrapped together with a red ribbon and sealed with red wax. Rowena took it and showed it to Alex.

Last Will and Testament of George Philip Matthew Drake, Baronet Daveston

 

The rest of the day passed in a flurry of activities, the one even more surprising than the other. Alex took Rowena straight away to Carlisle and Mr Thaddeus Beaumont in Blackfriars Street, who was Lord Carlisle’s solicitor. He sent a note to the lord himself, asking him to join them at the office of Horace Bleak, Roderick’s solicitor. While they were heading toward their destination, Rowena sat listening to the conversation between her husband and the solicitor.

She was still dazed – and extremely happy – by what they read in her father’s will. Papa had not left her penniless after all but granted her the considerable sum of ten-thousand pounds in addition to Fairhaven, the small property near Thursby. Roderick had deliberately fooled her into thinking she would receive nothing but to succeed, it was clear that Bleak must have agreed to go along with the scheme. So now they were going to confront the man.

They arrived before Lord Carlisle did, but that did not dissuade Alex from barging in forcibly. He smothered Bleak’s protests by grabbing him by his lapels and literally lifting him from the floor.

“I will see the will of the late Baronet Daveston now, Mr Bleak, so ask your clerk to produce it right away.”

The scrawny, weasel-like man started to protest as soon as his feet touched the ground again.

“Sir, I am not at liberty to do that. You would need to acquire Lord Daveston’s permission.”

Mr Beaumont interfered. “Mr Bleak, are you aware that your client is at death’s door? He suffered major injuries in a fire at his house yesterday. Lord and Lady Ketteridge are entitled to request that you show them the will. If this does not convince you, I can tell you that Lord Carlisle is on his way here with a search warrant.”

Bleak’s narrow face blanched. “But … but … Lady Ketteridge was appraised of her father’s will last year after he died. She knows the contents well enough to understand that there were no provisions made for her by her father.”

His face contorting in a wicked grin, Alex pulled the papers from his pocket and trust them under the solicitor’s nose. “Kindly take a look at this, Mr Bleak. You will be unpleasantly surprised, I assure you.”

Bleak reluctantly took the documents, read the first page and blanched. “I do not understand,” he started wining. “This is unknown to me, I swear.”

Rowena stood in awe at her husband’s display of sheer authority. He did not yell or use unnecessary violence, apart from the initial lifting of the man, who clearly was intent on defying him. Alex only raised himself to his impressive, full height and coldly stated what he wanted.

“My good man,” he said in a deceptively neutral voice, “let me present the two options that lie before you. You can give me the will of your own accord or, while we wait for the constables to arrive, I start tearing apart your pathetic excuse for an office, until I find it. Now, what will it be? I warn you that my patience is running dangerously thin, so do not tarry overlong.”

Horace Bleak was not a brave man nor was he a simpleton. He uttered a deep sigh and went to a filing cabinet behind his desk. After a few moments, he retrieved a document similar to the one Alex put under his nose.

“This is what Lord Daveston gave me after his father died.”

Mr Beaumont took the paper and began reading. “It is the version we already know, my lord,” he said to Alex after a while and handed it to him. “Were you present when this was drawn?”

Bleak looked positively embarrassed now. “No, indeed, sir, I was not. Lord Daveston summoned me the day after his father’s demise and produced the document. All I had was the will the late Lord Daveston had me draw up years ago. I was not even aware that he had made a new will in the first place.”

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Six (completed)

Richard Orme rose from the chair next to Roderick’s bed when they entered. “No change, I am afraid. His pulse is getting weaker and his breathing grows more ragged by the minute. I am so sorry, Rowena, but I will not be able to save him.”

“Has he regained consciousness during the past hours, Richard?” With an effort, Rowena endeavoured to keep her tears at bay.

“No, my dear, not even a flicker of awareness was seen. I did not expect him to, the pain must be excruciating. His body simply shuts down as to not have to endure it.”

“Rowie, come away,” Alex asked, to which she readily obliged. There was nothing for her to do here. Yet it astonished her that Alex led her back to their rooms.

“Please, take a seat, my dear. We have to talk.”

She grew concerned when he took both of her hands in his. “Carlisle is helping us with recuperating your inheritance, Rowie. He is the magistrate in this area and will help us search the rooms of the solicitor employed by Daveston. We will be looking for your father’s will which was never presented to the court in Carlisle. Yet we fear it might have been destroyed and replaced by a new one after your father’s death.”

“Oh, but Alex, that would be impossible! They would have to forge my father’s signature and two other signatures for the necessary witnesses.”

“There are ways and means to do just that, my dear. Have you ever seen your father’s will before he died?”

“Yes! Papa showed it to me when I turned eighteen. He told me I was to have a third of his money and a small property he owned near Thursby, a small town to the south-west of Carlisle. It belonged to my paternal grandmother and came with her dowry.”

“Do you have any inkling where he kept the will?”

“No, I am sorry, Alex. I would think he kept it in his library which was also his study, but I was appalled when I saw the state it was in. Many items were missing, rare books and works of art must have been sold by Roderick. Was he in dire financial circumstances?”

“I do not know, but it is an issue we should examine thoroughly.”

He was still holding her hands, she suddenly realized when his thumbs were gently rubbing them. If she even looked up, she would betray herself. She loved him so dearly, but she could not show him. The compassion he would surely give her would be too hard to bear. She gently retrieved her hands and forced herself back to the matter at hand.

“Maybe we should ask Philby if my father had other storage for his documents. He has been in the family service from before I was born.”

“Splendid!” Alex rose and extended his arm. “Why not go there now?”

 

They chose to ride to Daveston Hall, the weather being mild. An invigorating breeze stirred the chocolate curls escaping from under Rowena’s riding hat, and his wife was smiling, Alex saw. She seemed to enjoy their ride then? He knew he certainly did, so why had he not done that more frequently? Or maybe she did not object to his company as long as they were on horseback whatever the reason? He had not been very good company in the past. His blasted eye affliction and the nightmares that had haunted him did not favour pleasant companionship. His nightmares … he suddenly realized they had stayed away for weeks if not months. How had that come about? Ah, but he knew why. Sharing a bed with his beautiful, gentle wife and engaging in vigorous lovemaking, followed by a deep, restoring sleep was what had cured him. He so loved waking up next to Rowena, be it while she was still lost in sleep or when she was nursing Emma. He preferred the latter even more, the image of her as a mother, feeding the baby with her hair still in disarray and her exquisite breasts bared. Damn, he had to stop thinking of her like that now or he would face some serious discomfort getting aroused while in the saddle!

All this made it perfectly clear that he loved Rowena. He was hers, completely and forever, although he had no inkling when and how it came about. Love caught one unawares. That were the words his brother Reggie had used in his last letter, talking about the man he had loved without ever having been permitted to say them aloud.

Would he, Alex, be able to say them to Rowena one day? He could only hope and pray.

 

Rowena rode down the driveway of Daveston Hall beside Alex, vowing to herself that their being together had never been more pleasant than it was at this moment. Of course, she was sad because of Roderick’s imminent death, and because of her failure in trying to befriend him. She could not end his animosity towards her, this feeling of envy and loathing he must always have had. Yet she had a small consolation in the fact that she had tried, and that must be enough. From now on she would be able to concentrate on her life at Alex’ side. She would love him, make his life happy, and give him the home he had forever lacked. She so longed for a child sired by her husband, a sister or brother for Emma. All this to do with her inheritance was of no consequence when it came to her family’s happiness. She only wanted to be sure of one more matter; did her father truly tell her lies about what she would receive after his death or had it been Roderick’s doing all along? Should the former prevail, she would have to grieve over her father yet again, and it would be even more excruciating than ever. Then she would know that her father never truly loved her and she could not envisage this horrible possibility, never.

Dear old Philby listened to what they asked him with stoicism and a little incredibility.

“My lady, I am astonished that you have no notion about my late lord’s favourite storage place. Did he never tell you about it?”

“Not that I recall, Philby, so you will have to show me.”

“Very well, my lady, my lord. If you will follow me?”

Philby led them to the large attics where a considerable amount of furniture was stored. As they walked through the bulk of cupboards and closets, chairs and sofas, beds and chaise-longues, Rowena recognized some of it. She realized it was the furniture her mother had brought to Daveston Hall when she married her father. Philby saw her surprise.

“Yes, my lady, the master ordered all of this to be burned because he wanted all of it gone. It was your mother’s, as you can see. We, that is all the servants, conspired to have it stored here. We lied to the master and spun him the tale of it been given away. Now, if you please, this is what you are looking for. I am sure you recognize it?”

 

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty-One

Chapter Twenty-Six

Crestwell Abbey, Cumberland, April 17th, 1816

Rowena looked at her baby girl while the infant was suckling in blissful contentment. Emma was such a beautiful child. Her dark wisps of hair showed the promise of curls and her eyes, still dark blue would be chocolate like her own. No sign of Peter anywhere, for which she was immensely grateful.

Next to her sat Lady Petronella, chuckling and smiling. “That little one grows prettier each day, Rowena. She is positively thriving and quite smart, have you noticed? She already smiles to all and sunder and knows all too well how to charm even the grumpiest of her fellow men.”

“Yes, that she does,” Rowena agreed. “She is my greatest joy and pride, my lady. I am so profoundly happy that you also derive pleasure at having her.”

“Oh, hush, child. Do call me Nelly, as Carlisle does in his most tender moments.” The countess’ light grey eyes were sparkling with merriment, causing Rowena to laugh. “Very well, Nelly. I wanted to express my gratitude for your hospitality and kindness to us all. It means the world to me that you are there for my Emma.”

The countess rose and patted Rowena’s hand. “I can only be very thankful that you did not suffer any harm yesterday, although it was a close call, from what Carlisle tells me. It was a bit foolish of you, my dear, to call on your half-brother without someone accompanying you.”

“Exactly what I wanted to convey to my wife, Lady Carlisle.”

Rowena looked up to see her husband standing in the doorway, an unusually tender smile on his austere face. She blushed and smiled back at him.

“Well, I know when I am de trop,” Lady Carlisle chuckled. “I will see you at lunch, children.”

“How are you feeling, Rowie?” Alex demanded, seating himself beside her, as soon as they were alone.

“Excellent, Alex, and you? Richard told me nothing about you last evening. I wanted to stay up until you came but I must have fallen asleep. I am sorry, Alex.” She gently pulled Emma from her breast, since the baby had stopped suckling. Alex instantly took over.

“Come here, princess, Papa’s shoulder is as good as Mama’s. Let us hear a big burp, little one.” Emma obliged forthwith and they both burst out in spontaneous laughter. Cradling the infant against his shoulder, Alex grew serious.

“Rowie, why on earth did you go to Daveston alone? I would have taken you any time, you must know that?”

His eyes were overflowing with – dare she name it – tenderness? That was an emotion she had never seen before. Alex never showed any emotion, his austere face was usually set in aloofness. Yet there was more. Rowena suddenly felt unsure and confused. She frantically groped for an answer under that disconcerting gaze. All saints in heaven, do not tell him that you wanted to protect him!

“He is my brother, Alex. We grew up at Daveston. He was already a man of twenty-two when I was born and never forgave my father for marrying again. I imagine I must have been a nuisance to him from the start, although I used to worship him, especially after my mother died. Father was sickly for a long time, so I turned to Roderick for support quite frequently. I has only recently occurred to me that he never gave me much of it over the years.”

Alex’ expression had grown grim now, so Rowena hastened on. “I wanted to renew our contact, Alex. I hoped that my marriage to you would convince him that I am respectable again. I also wanted to find out what had driven him to refuse me my inheritance, and now I know he has been envious of me for as long as I live. He said so much. He begrudged me everything, down to my very existence. It was very disconcerting.”

“He tried to strangle you, Rowie.” Alex’ voice was but a growl, which startled her.

“You know? How?”

“Richard told me. I would have seen it for myself or would you have found a way to conceal those horrible bruises for me?”

Rowena sighed. “No, of course not. I had not thought as far as that. That reminds me I have not yet been to see him since last night, which I am going to do right away.”

She rose quickly and left the room, relieved that Alex did not stop her. Instead, he came with her, gently took her arm, and spoke. “Rowie, you must prepare yourself. He is very ill and a horrible sight to behold. I resent very much that you will have to see him in his present state but understand why you would wish to. Pray, let us go together.”

He took her hand and placed it on his elbow,  a gesture which told Rowena her brother must indeed be seriously ill. Of course, this was not new to her. She had seen first-hand in which condition he was. Yet it was very sweet of Alex to try and comfort her this way.

The Reclusive Aristocrat – Part Sixty

Chapter Twenty-Five (completed)

Alex and Porter entered the grand hall at Crestwell Abbey with Carlisle who immediately signalled to his housekeeper. The tall, thin, middle-aged matron by the name of Petersen directed them to their rooms, where she had their baths ready. He had not felt that filthy since he returned from a battlefield during his army days, Alex mused. The complete exhaustion was equally comparable to that of a soldier coming back from a battle, the numbness rivalling with the depressive apathy that followed the initial euphoria of surviving. One did never recover to the full of having killed.

And yet, his mind was churning with thoughts of the disturbing events of the evening. He could not seem to put them to order. What had provoked the cataclysm that nearly ended in disaster? He could have lost his wife, for Christ’s sake! Why had she even gone to visit her brother, when Alex had assured her there was no need?

The shock of discovering she was not there, the fury at her for ignoring what he told her, and last, the overwhelmingly paralyzing fear when he found her so still and from this world, it all milled around in him with something akin to pain.

He barely responded to the footman coming to assist him in Porter’s stead but the soothing warmth of the bath slowly brought a bit of normalness. He dismissed the footman, wanting to be alone in order to come to his senses again. He must plan a strategy to finish this nasty business and he certainly needed to have a serious talk with his wife. If anything, he now knew he could not go on living without her, even if he dared not name the agonizing feelings he was experiencing.

When he finally emerged into the sitting room between his and Rowena’s, a familiar voice greeted him.

“Ah, there you are, Alex. We need to talk but first, let me examine you. Porter tells me you have sustained some burns.”

“How is Rowena? Is she unharmed? Damn it, Rich, do not keep me in the dark, I know you were here when she returned.”

Dr Orme rose from the chair where he had been waiting for his friend. “She is indeed unharmed, Alex, not even a minor burn, unlike that brother of hers, whom I consider beyond help. Aside from a slight cough due to smoke inhalation, she is fine. Rowena was exhausted so she is probably fast asleep now. Come, let me take a look at you. I saw the state your clothes were in, so I have a pretty good idea of what you went through.”

After Dr Orme determinately started retrieving equipment from his medical bag, Alex sat down in a sofa with a sigh. The examination went on in silence for a few minutes; before Dr Orme pronounced Alex healthy. He had a few slight burns on his hands from having to work on the burning furniture, but they would heal well enough.

“So tell me about that bastard Daveston. He is not going to make it, you say?”

“Not likely. He has got third-degree burns, too much skin area damaged and infection has already started in some wounds. I do not think he will survive the night.”

“I cannot grieve about that, Rich. What he did to Rowena is absolutely horrid. He as good as sent her to her death after letting his friend seduce her.”

“Alex, there is something else you should know about.”

Orme’s tone was grave. “Tell me.”

“I found signs of strangulation on Rowena’s neck and severe bruising on her torso, as if she has been thrown against a hard surface.”

“What? And you waited this long to tell me? I am finishing him off right now!”

Alex stormed out of the room, Orme hot on his heels, when they were both stopped in their tracks by Porter. “’Ere now, major, what’s the rush? Ye said ye were dead knackered.”

“Come now, Alex. You cannot harm the man more than he already suffered. I tell you he is not long for this world anymore. You can see for yourself if you do not believe me.”

His friend was right, Alex mused, as he looked down onto the prostrated form of Daveston. The man lay on his stomach, a sheet covering his horribly burnt back. They had removed his clothes and found multiple other burns on hands and arm, legs and feet. Thankfully he was unconscious and would probably never come round. Fever was settling in, which made him shiver.

“I try to get him to swallow something, but I failed. I managed to get some sedative solution into him by using a syringe, so I hope this will have some effect, albeit a small one.”

“I wanted to interrogate him, but that might never occur in the state he is in. I needed him to give us the location of his father’s will. Carlisle’s solicitor is certain there has been fraud.”

“When he dies, maybe the case will solve itself, Alex. Does he have a will of himself?”

“We have not the faintest clue. His own solicitor must be involved, he has to be.”

“Well, there is nothing we can do now. I suggest you go and get some sleep. You look like you could benefit from it.”

 

A wise advice, Alex mused, as he entered their rooms. Now that the shock of it all was ebbing away, he longed for his bed as a numbing weariness settled in. He contemplated retreating to his own separate bedchamber but succumbed to the unsettling need to be with his wife. Not to have carnal relations but to simply be in close company with her. He still could not be at ease about her after the ordeal she went through.

He entered the bedroom on tiptoes, certain she would be fast asleep, and he was right. The weak light of a dying fire forced Alex to wait for his eyes to adjust, but soon he stood looking down at Rowena, stunned by her graceful beauty. She was lying on her left side, one hand under her cheek. Her right arm lay crooked against her chest, which was awkward, to say the least. He had to fetch a candle from the sitting room and only then he noticed that her right shoulder was badly bruised, and fury rose again. That bastard had not only tried to strangle but also punched her?

He could barely move with livid anger paralyzing him but knew instantly that he had to sleep elsewhere. God forbid that he hurt her further with his large bulk of a body trashing around in a nightmare beside her, although to be honest, his nightmares had not come back recently. As quietly as possible, he retreated to his own bed yet sleep did not come easily.

His anger did not abate as quickly as he had surmised. That was odd, to say the least. As a soldier, he did not feel anger often, not in the hours immediately before, during or after the fighting. The anger came in the days after, when he made stock of his injuries and those of Titan. A battle horse always suffered some wounds, minor or worse, and his faithful stallion’s health was sacred to Alex. When he was not immersed in military duties, at his quarters or on leave, Alex never succumbed to anger. What was there to be angry about in society, where he was surrounded by vain, shallow people who did not even know that he was fighting to keep them and their riches safe? They would not understand because they chose to be utterly ignorant and uninterested. Yet since he met Rowena, he had been subjected to anger many times.

He could very well recall what fury he had felt, that first time he scooped her up during that awful snowstorm. What kind of family allowed a woman to be out on such a day? And when he found out that she had been seduced by her fiancé only to have him go galivanting to Flanders and play soldier, he had wanted to trash the blackguard. When she told him she had been running away from her half-brother who wanted to take away her baby and thus chased her from her home, his anger had been so wild and fiery, that he had literally seen red.

It perplexed Alex why this was so.

Then there was the fear he began experiencing where Rowena was concerned, and this from the moment she came into his life. Fear engendered protection. Rowena needed a lot of that, between Johnston and Daveston.

Rowena was his Achilles heel. Rowena was also his strength, his reason for living. She gave him purpose and joy for life. He could not continue without her, that had been abundantly clear when he thought her in mortal danger. How well he recalled his overwhelming fear at finding out she had gone to Daveston Hall. His brain had been numb, his heart pounding so hard he could barely breathe.

There was only one plausible conclusion, and he had known it all along. He loved Rowena.