Chapter Twenty-Three (completed)
“Whatever do you say, girl? Where is my wife, and why are you not with her?” Alex barked at the already frightened Trixie, scaring her even more with his fury. Panic, hot and searing threatened to drown him, which was so unusual for him. He, the well-accomplished soldier, had never ever panicked in his life, so why could he not clear his mind and calm his tremors like he used to do on the battlefield? He was shaking, damn it all to hell!
“Oh, my lord, she wouldn’t listen to anyone! She’s gone to that half-brother of hers!”
“Damnation! Why did you not stop her?” Sweat broke out over his entire body while he desperately tried to calm down, but the image of Rowena in the hands of her blackguard of a brother blocked all reason. He closed his eyes, fighting to overcome the shivers that ran down his spine.
Porter intervened, seeing poor Trixie burst out in tears. “’Ere now, major, that’s no way to shou’ a’ ‘er like tha’! You go and pour yeself a brandy or summinck and I’ll talk te ‘er.”
Alex saw the wisdom of that advice and raked a hand through his hair in frustration. “Trixie, I apologize. I had no business shouting at you like that, but I am very concerned about her ladyship. You say she has gone to Daveston Hall. Not alone, I hope?”
“No, sir, she took Gregson and David. I wanted to come, too, but she forbade it.”
Trixie wrung her hands. “Sir, I’m so very afraid. She told me about her half-brother and what a vicious man he is. To chase her from her home when she was pregnant!”
“Major, please! We’ll see to this as soon as ye’ve calmed down! Jesus! I never saw ye like this!”
In the end, it was Porter’s voice trembling with genuine worry that broke through Alex’ horrid thoughts. He forced himself to sit down. Think, you nincompoop, think for God’s sake!
Why on earth would Rowena go to Daveston Hall and endanger herself when she knew it was her brother that caused all her troubles? That he might have committed murder in order to protect his ill-gotten money?
Plans began to form in his now-cleared brain. He must go after her, forthwith.
“Very well, Porter. Just you and I, and make no mistake; this is a battle.
“Miss Rowena, how good to see you.” Her father’s elderly butler welcomed her inside.
Rowena took both of his hands in hers. “Philby, I am so glad you are still here. Are you and Mrs Philby well?”
“Yes, miss, we are, thank you.”
It was a relief for Rowena to find her father’s long-time and most loyal servants still in residence. Philby must have been more than forty years at Daveston Hall, while Mrs Philby had been the housekeeper for the same amount of time.
“I am no longer a miss, Philby, but the countess of Ketteridge. My husband’s estate is in Leicestershire, and we have a little girl.”
“Very happy to hear that, your ladyship. Come, I will show you to the library. Sir Roderick is waiting for you.”
“How is my brother, Philby? How is his mood?”
The elderly butler shook his head. “We are very concerned about the master, my lady. He is submerged in melancholia and neglects his duties. He also consumes a great amount of spirits, which is affecting his health. Today he is in a foul, brooding mood, my lady. You should take care.”
Rowena nodded and followed Philby to the library door, which he opened to step inside.
“Lady Ketteridge requests a meeting with you, sir.” Whereupon he stepped back to let Rowena enter. The door closed behind her with a definite click.
Rowena glanced about the large room where she kept her father company so many times when he was dealing with estate matters. She gasped in surprise when she saw what changes had occurred; priceless artefacts no longer graced the many side tables and walls, empty bookshelves gaped where costly first editions had been. Roderick seemed to have done away with all the objects their father had so loved. She forced herself to keep calm, however.
“Good afternoon, Roderick. Thank you for allowing me to speak with you.”
Her half-brother was in appallingly casual attire, wearing only a pair of stained breeches and a shirt open halfway to his chest, and with stockinged feet stretched out before him. Despite the mildness of the day, he was slumped in a chair near the blazing fireplace, a glass in hand and a bottle of brandy on a small table beside him. It was patently obvious that he was thoroughly foxed, which was odd, since it was still early afternoon. He eyed her with mocking contempt, making no effort to rise.
“Well, blast it! And here I was hoping we would never see each other again after our meeting in London. How bad of you to give me hope only to crush it so viciously. What the blazes are you doing here, Rowena?”
Rowena took a deep breath, knowing he was in no mood to be civil. She did not seated herself but stayed where she was near the door.
“I have come to ask you why, Roderick. Why have you denied me my rightful inheritance?”
His face went white with fury, and he sat upright, then put down his glass.
“Your rightful inheritance? Your inheritance, you say? Was it not enough that our sentimental idiot of a father spoiled you rotten with all he bestowed on you while he lived? No, he had to ruin me and condemn the estate to an unholy end by giving away the half of his money to you! You had no right to it. I am the master here, I had rightful expectations for my future, while you had no right to anything more than what you already filched from him.”
His eyes were glowing with rage now, and Rowena tamped down the urge to flee. Instead she went to him and sat down in the opposite chair, instantly aware of the unnatural heat of the fire. Why was there a fire after all on such a fine spring day? Then she saw Roderick’s hands clasping the armrests of his chair to prevent their shaking. His face was blotched red on a flaxen skin and heavily lined around the nose and mouth, his eyes bloodshed with dark pouches under them. He had lost several teeth, she noticed, and his hair had white streaks in the dark brown. Roderick was only forty-three years old but he looked much older. What distressed Rowena the most was that it had seemed to have happened overnight. In London, he had been the dashing young lord of the manor diligently working to gain a seat in Parliament. Compassion overcame her, and she rose to go near him and lay a hand on one of his.
“Roderick, are you quite well? You look overly tired. What happened since we last saw each other?”
In one swift and completely unexpected motion, Roderick rose and closed both of his hands around Rowena’s neck. “Not so tired that I cannot squeeze the miserable life out of you, you interfering, snooping, tiresome bitch! You could not leave well alone, could you? You and that pathetic excuse of a husband of yours had to investigate into my dealings with Johnston. I warned you but you did not heed it, so now I will stop you for good. God knows I could have done it sooner!”
He was insane! He must have resented her from the day she was born, she realized. Rowena fought to draw his hands from her and kick him but it was like bashing a brick wall. The breath was squeezed out of her as her lungs were starting to ache with the lack of air. Blindly she groped around her to find something to fight him with. Her vision was blurring. Her heartbeat filled her head with thunderous bangs as she realized she was going to die, here and now.
Wonderous thoughts flitted through her dazed mind of how utterly stupid it was that she did not wait for Alex to come with her. Now he would never know that she dearly loved him. That he would be left alone with little Emma Rose, that she would see her baby daughter grow up.
Fury gave her the strength to clutch at the first object to reach her groping fingers. It was the brandy bottle, and she heaved it upwards to club Roderick with it.
“Oh, no, you treacherous bitch!”
He wrenched the bottle from her and threw it into the fireplace. A second later, a blue-white spear of fire burst into the room.