Ketteridge, Leicestershire, March 19th, 1816
Rowena woke to Emma’s crying and saw that morning had already broken, albeit barely. The next moment, Bessie brought the infant and waited for Rowena to sit up to lay Emma in her mother’s arms. While she was nursing the greedy baby, Rowena only now realised she had been alone in the bed, even though Alex had stayed after their lovemaking.
They had been together in London two nights ago, and only the one night on the road when she had to care for an unusually distressed Emma, they had been forced to forego intimacy. Yet the first night back at Ketteridge House, Rowena had boldly gone to her husband’s room longing for him so deeply that she was determined to do anything to get into his bed. Turned out that he, too, had been wanting her with a passion she could only revel in. But it was only passion, Rowena realised with painful clarity. Never had the word ‘love’ crossed his lips. Would Alex ever open up to her, she mused in mild despair? Would she ever mean more to him than a bed partner?
After she returned Emma to her nurse, Rowena gratefully sank into the bath Trixie had drawn for her. The journey from London seemed to have tired her more than she cared for. Nevertheless, she would ready herself with care and prepare for a serious conversation with her husband. She did not expect love from him but when respect came into view, that was another matter altogether.
Alex was slowly beginning to understand what it actually meant to run an estate, and a failing one to boot, when he rode out with his steward to inspect his farms. Literally everything had been lacking, as John Wallis explained, from ploughs and plough horses to manure and seed and to sufficient workers as well. Although Alex had given John free rein to order whatever was needed, as well as to hire extra hands, it was vital that he now see for himself how matters were progressing.
What he found out, reassured him only partially. Some tenant farmers, especially the older and more experienced ones, had done the ploughing and were preparing to start sowing. Others were still complaining about a lack of hands, claiming that the older farmers had taken the bulk of young lads available. Unfortunately, the supply of young people in this age of industrialisation was not very forthcoming.
Young folk drifted away to the factories in the rapidly expanding industrial cities, seeking employment in the cotton industry. Alex could not blame them, since payment was always better and steadier there than it would ever be in agriculture. He had interests in the cotton industry in Manchester, Liverpool and Leicester and knew several of his tenants’ sons who had migrated there for reasons of sheer survival. So now he was brooding over how he would supply extra hands so that sowing could be done on all his farms. For the moment, he had no inkling how he would carry that through.
He could, however, encourage and praise his tenants for their efforts, which he duly did. Nevertheless, he returned home with a mind full of problems to which he saw no immediate solution. As he gave his coat and hat to Porter, Rowena entered the hall from the servants’ quarters. Her face lit up when she spotted him, and he in return was stunned by his own reaction. A kind of warm softness encircled his heart, creating a pleasant sensation of safety and belonging he had never experienced before in this ancestral home of his. Not for the first time did Alex acknowledge that it was his wife’s presence that accomplished that.
“Good morning! I was wondering if we could have a quick word? I mean to ride out to the farms, as Meg has received requests for help from several of the women, but I can delay my departure. Shall we go to the library? I ordered tea which will surely be welcome after your morning ride.”
She sailed into the room, not waiting for his assent, and all he could do was to follow her. She looked particularly lovely, today, he mused, in her close-fitting riding habit in vivid green with a pristine white blouse. A froth of white lace accented the slender column of her graceful neck, leaving Alex with a burning desire to kiss and even lick it. The smile she had given him was still warming his heart. Yet in his head, her remark about riding out rang clearly and it concerned him.
“Do you need to ride, Rowena? Would it not be better to use the carriage?”
“I will ride because I sorely need the exercise after our days of inaction in London. I can take one of our grooms though I doubt there is a need to.”
“You are definitely not going on your own. It is not safe, so I will accompany you.”
Her look of utter astonishment amazed him to the point of shock. Surely she must have had an inkling of danger after their encounter with Carlisle and his lady. The earl had told them that it had been Daveston who encouraged Johnston to pay court to Rowena. Carlisle suggested that his son had been of weak character, always seeking for the easiest way to obtain money, even if that entailed marrying Daveston’s half-sister. The earl had been forced to cut Johnston’s funds after the many gambling debts he and Daveston had acquired over the space of only one year.
“Rowena, we now know that Daveston still poses a risk to your safety. He was deep in debts after he inherited the estate, so much so that he stole your own inheritance through fraud. He was – is – in dire circumstances, Rowena. He might be even desperate to gain more funds, even if he has to harm you in the process. So yes, I am going with you.”
She did not reply but the gaze she directed him was luminous, as if she knew something he did not. As if she was incredibly happy, all of a sudden. He wondered why but tucked away the uneasiness when she agreed to his company on their ride.
When they clattered out of the stable yard together, Alex suddenly realised that she had not spoken further over the matters that concerned her earlier. He asked himself why but found no immediate answer.