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.”