She heard the words as they penetrated the haze of desire. They did not make any sense, surely. It must be her ever-returning search for safety and love that made her fantasize about Alex, wishing he had said the words aloud. She would not let go of him just yet, the warmth of him soothing her nerves, and making her feel so calm. Then he went and broke the enchantment by taking her by the shoulders to put her before him.
“Rowena, did you even hear what I said?” Now he was looking straight into her eyes, his own blue-grey orbs serious.
She could but nod, her gaze trapped by the fire in his eyes. How was it possible for him to create such a pretence of looking at her, when he was as good as blind? Oh, and she had nodded, so he would not have seen it.
“Yes,” she croaked, “I heard but … I cannot understand. Marry you? It is not possible, my lord, you must be toying with me.” With an effort, she managed to free herself from the earl’s grasp and turned to leave the kitchen.
He stopped her. “Listen, Rowena, and listen well. I wish to marry you and bestow my name upon your unborn child. That is the best way to protect your babe. To protect you, my dear, because you definitely need protection.”
Rowena fought to restore her composure, still reeling under the heady sensations his touch had bestowed on her. She had no inkling as to why the earl would want to have her as his wife. All his talk about protection rang very false in her ears, and besides, she did not need help from him beyond having a roof above her head and earning a bit of money.
“My lord, it grieves me that you are not honest with me,” she said in a somewhat shaky voice, while she searched his face for a readable expression. God knew how difficult that always was. He was a master in masking his thoughts.
“Do you doubt my words, Rowena? Do you think me a liar?”
“No, not that …” Rowena felt heat suffuse her cheeks as she closed her eyes. She could not look at him now.
“What, then?” he asked softly, almost tenderly, while his hand caressed her cheek in a languorous motion. “Tell me, Rowena.”
“I cannot accept your hand, my lord. I will bring shame upon you. I am a fallen woman, pregnant with another man’s child.”
Something shifted inside Alex’ chest, and a large, solid lump formed in his throat. Only for one second before it was replaced by sheer, ragingly hot fury.
What he would not give to have his hands on the scoundrel that brought this upon Rowena! How he would love to trash that blackguard within an inch of his miserable life. By getting her with child, Peter Johnston had not only ruined her body, but also bruised her spirits.
He closed his eyes to allow his emotions to settle, then started to think rationally again.
“Rowena, I know all that already. I obviously do not care about your predicament, or otherwise I would not have proposed.”
He cupped her face in his hands, eager to win her over. “I am not without flaws myself, my dear. We will make a splendid match together. I cannot win the hand of an innocent aristocrat’s daughter, fresh from the schoolroom, and force her to marry an invalid. I need to marry in order to have an heir to the earldom. You cannot find a husband with a bastard child in tow. When we marry, your child will have a name and funds to guide it into future. You will have a title and a fortune to use as you please. You will be my countess. Together we will bring Ketteridge back to fruition and prosperity.”
Rowena heard all this, let the words wash over her while she fought for composure and guidance. It all sounded so logical, so sensible, and it surely was the ideal solution to her problems. As the Countess of Ketteridge, she would have a position and a name. She would have a home for her child. He or she would be growing up with a name and funds to give him or her a future.
However, something was lacking in all his fervent words. There were no words of affection coming from him. Rowena could understand that he did not love her after only the mere three weeks that they had known each other. Holy Virgin, was it only twenty-four days? No, too short a time to let love blossom between them, but surely, he could have spoken more affectionately? He could have said something that would warm her heart and give her the so much needed confidence in their mutual future?
“How … how will we know … if we shall do well together, my lord?” Rowena said in a small voice, feeling herself tremble with uncertainty and fear.
The earl chuckled and brought her face closer to his. His voice was like warm, sweet honey when he spoke.
“Oh, I think we shall get along splendidly, my dear.”
He kissed her, and it was a short, sweet touching of lips that nevertheless shattered all Rowena’s defences. His lips were firm and warm, making her long for something she had missed for such a long, lonely time.
Just as Rowena began melting into the kiss, she was startled out of her blissful daze abruptly as Alex released her, took her by the hand, and began dragging her upstairs to the breakfast room. Meg and John, who had only just come down, rose hastily when they entered, and paid they respects.
“Ah, Mr and Mrs Wallis, just the people I wanted to speak with. Miss Drake and I have an announcement to make, and a joyful one, for that matter, since it will resolve all problems regarding impropriety. I will bestow my name and title on her, and once she is my countess, no one will dare cast aspersions about impropriety upon her.”
Rowena watched the expressions on her dear friends’ faces turn from concern into utter joy. Meg threw her arms around Rowena and hugged her tightly. “Oh, my sweet Rowie, what splendid news! You will be forever safe under His Lordship’s protection. I am very happy for you, my love!”
In a haze of incomprehension, Rowena saw John shake the earl’s hand with relief and joy blossoming on his ruddy face. Why were her beloved friends so relieved? Had they been so concerned about her that they considered marriage the only way to save her?
Alex’ voice, ringing with cheerfulness, broke through her thoughts. “Now, let us adjoin to my library for there are many urgent preparations to set in motion. I want our wedding to take place on New Year’s Eve. I will need a few days to procure a marriage license in Leicester. My solicitor must have the time to compose a marriage settlement.”
As he took her hand to lead her away, Rowena realised she had not been given the chance to refuse Alex’ offer. He had just taken her consent for granted.