Ketteridge House, Leicestershire, England, January 2nd , 1816
Rowena tried to struggle against the tender but unrelenting force her husband exerted while he mounted the large, circular staircase.
“My lord, please! I can walk by myself, you may put me down.” The note of urgency in her own voice rang in Rowena’s ears, and she realised she was afraid of what her husband might do next. He seemed to exude an anger she had not felt in him before, and she was worried. Correct, or so it seemed, for Alex ignored her. Unperturbed by her feeble struggles, he reached the top of the stairs, turned towards her bedchamber and, seconds later, dumped her unceremoniously on the bed.
“What were you thinking of, for God’s sake?” Alex growled. “You should be in bed, getting strong again, after your ordeal, and instead, you are up and about as if nothing untoward happened!”
Rowena was still recuperating from the onslaught he had wrought upon her senses. Senses that were rubbed raw from the long process of childbirth, with a torrent of emotions resulting from it. She was aware of the tears that threatened all too readily, since she had realised in early spring that she was with child. Her courage had been under siege ever since, subjecting her to sudden weeping spells and bouts of despair. She had been hoping that would stop as soon as her child would be born, but apparently she had been mistaken.
Now she had to face an irate, almost livid Alex and she could not bear it. He, of all those who surrounded her, should be the one to support her, to … She stopped her own thoughts as she saw something in her husband’s eyes that caused her heart to leap. She saw compassion, which was nothing more than concealed condescension, and she loathed that.
Sitting up against her mount of pillows, Rowena looked Alex over with a calm determination. He wore his normal, elegant clothes, fine buff breeches, white shirt, hunter-green waistcoat and cravat, and a coat in a darker green. His hair had been brushed and styled by Porter, though it was still a bit too long for propriety’s sake. His jaws were clean-shaven, and she could smell his sandalwood cologne, but his eyes … they were bleak, weary, and worried. He was worried over her, which meant he cared about her.
Yet he had omitted to tell her that his eyesight had increased, and that he could now see her, could now scowl at her, and could now try cowering her with his anger-burning gaze. Which was exactly what he was doing at this very moment. He clearly did not want her to become part of his life, and that made her feel hollow inside.
“I was thinking that my husband does not trust me,” she blurted out, and then was appalled by her own audacity, when Alex narrowed his eyes. Beautiful, grey-blue eyes that could see her now, she realised, and with that, anger rose in her throat like bile. Damn him, for not telling her!
So now she was challenging him, was she? The quiet little mouse was attempting to make him feel like he was the one at fault, and blast it, she was succeeding. He truly was feeling like the most contemptuous cad in the whole world, blast it all to hell!
“I was not aware, Madam, that you have yet earned my trust.” The cold callousness of his tone rattled him, yet he let the words tumble forth. “You brought a threat to my house through your connection with a dangerous criminal. I am now forced to see to it that this … scoundrel does not do any more harm than he already has.”
“But … but Peter is not a criminal! He has come to some dire circumstances and it is my duty as a Christian to help him. Have you not seen how low he has gone from the proud young soldier that he was? I …”
“Madam!” Alex felt like throttling her. He was so furious he had to press his nails into his palms not to grab her and shake some bloody sense in her. How could she speak of the blither in such a way? How could she even think of helping him?
She must have sensed his fury for she lowered her eyes, turned her head away from his gaze, and pressed her mouth into a thin, forbidden line.
“I must ask for you to indulge me, my lord, but I am feeling rather poorly, at the moment. I should wish for sleep.”
Alex felt immensely relieved to be dismissed since he knew he was at the end of his tether.
In the end, Alex gave in to Richard Orme’s plea not to go to Cumberland without a proper and thorough preparation. As a result, he gave Middlebridge an assignment to investigate the legacy of Rowena’s father, the baronet Daveston, and to the estate which belonged to her half-brother, Roderick. When Wallis asked him for directions, he ordered him to go about the estate business as usual and until further notice.
The three of them left, and only Porter remained, glaring at him as if he committed some hideous crime.
“I won’t need you, Porter. I will send for you if I do.”
“Sure ye will, major, bu’ I’ll need some directions from ye. Wha’ is it ye want me to do?”
Alex sighed in frustration. “I just told you I had no need for you.”
“So I’m not goin’ to Lon’un? Wa’ abou’ the summons from the ‘Ouse o’ Lords?”
Ah. Of course, there was that.
On June 17th on the plains of Waterloo, Alex received Middlebridge’s letter announcing Reggie’s death. However, he had been too preoccupied with preparing for the great battle that was to take place the day after to even acknowledge what it meant. Alex became the fifth earl of Ketteridge on the day his brother passed away.
After their father died, Alex had become the heir presumptive, a status which Reggie had immediately changed into heir apparent by a proper patent letter to the House of Lords. The only thing to be done was to write a request to the Lord Chancellor to be confirmed in his title by the House. And that had never happened, due to Alex being severely wounded during the battle.
Which is why the Lord Chancellor had sent him a summons to come and present himself to the House. Alex found himself in a serious dilemma; see to his wife’s predicaments or officially claim his title. If he went to London, he would be away for at least a fortnight, leaving Rowena open to an attack from Johnston. He also needed more information on the bastard. Why had he turned up so unexpectedly and after so long a time? Too many questions that screamed for an answer.
“Oh, on the contrary, my good Porter,” Alex said. “You are going to London with the assignment I gave you earlier. Find out everything there is to know about Peter Johnston.”