His mention of distance prompted her to ask, “Are you just arriving then, to Summers Glade?”
He glanced down the hill at the house, which got another one of his glowers, before he said, “Nay, just needed tae work off a wee bit o’ steam, and thought the stallion there could accommodate me. Silly notion. I should’ve known riding would cause me more aggravation than ease.”
She chuckled. It caused Duncan to take a second look at her, more closely than his first.
She was a bedraggled wee lass, with her long brown hair gone all hither and yon, but he found her lack of decorum rather appealing. She was small, but even her long coat, covering her from neck to foot, couldn’t hide the very plumpness of her breasts, though it did conceal the rest of her shape. He noted two buttons were missing. He noted the prettiest lilac eyes he’d ever seen.
A thought occurred to him and he voiced it abruptly. “Are you Lady Ophelia, by chance?”
“Good heavens, no, but you must be the Highland barbarian I’ve been hearing so much about.”
For some reason, he didn’t take offense. Perhaps because of the twinkle in her lovely eyes as she said it. She was obviously amused by the term “barbarian” used in context with him, and he was amused by her amusement.
Then, too, he’d donned the kilt, which he normally wouldn’t wear in winter, to make a statement for Neville’s benefit, that he preferred things Scottish to English. It could be seen as a barbaric statement, though, by others, considering the time of year, not that this paltry English cold could bother him. But that, too, was amusing, now that he was calm enough to think about it.
So he said with a bit of humor in his own tone, ‘Aye, that would be me.”
“You’re not as old as I thought you would be,’ she continued.
He raised an auburn brow at her, asking, “How auld was that?”
“Forty at least.”
“Forty!” he roared.
Her peal of laughter was infectious. Duncan just managed to not chuckle with her and gave her what he hoped was a stem look instead.
“You were teasing me then?” he said.
“Was it obvious then?”
“There’s no’ many I know that brave.
She smiled at him. “I highly doubt you’re the barbarian you’ve been reputed to be, but then I’m not the walking ghost I’ve been reputed to be either. Strange thing about rumors and gossip. They so rarely deal with the real facts, yet so often are taken as the literal truth.”
“So Neville was expecting a barbarian, was he?” Duncan said.
She blinked at him, then laughed again. “Oh, my, I highly doubt it. He would know better, wouldn’t he, since he knows you well enough, being your grandfather. No, no, it’s those who haven’t met you yet, but know of your coming, that might be predisposed to wonder about a Highland Scot, when so few ever come to England to prove that the Highlands of Scotland must be civilized by now, and goodness, that was quite a mouthful, wasn’t it?”
Duncan had been about to growl in response. That assumption that his grandfather should know him had really rubbed him on the raw. But the rest of what she said he found so amusing, it actually put him at ease again, so much so that he felt like teasing her back, rather than seriously addressing what the Highlands were reputed to be.
“Must it be?” he said.
She appeared to give that some careful thought, then replied logically, “Well, it might not be quite as civilized as England, of course. But I seriously doubt it’s still producing barbarians of the truly barbaric sort. Look at you, after all. Or did you forget to bring your war paint?”
He burst out laughing. He doubled over with it. He had to wipe tears from his eyes.
But when he wound down a bit, he noticed she was now frowning at him, and then she said so seriously, “You did, didn’t you? You forgot it.”
He fell over this time, he laughed so hard. And when he was done, he felt… almost normal, the bitterness that had been eating at him gone, at least for the moment. And he saw the impish grin she was now wearing, proving she’d been no more than teasing him again.
What a gem she was, this young girl, certainly not what he’d been expecting from English lasses. If the rest were like her, well, he might not find it so disagreeable to wed one after all.
Neville’s guests—and the number had grown considerably as the day progressed—had no idea that the only reason they hadn’t been summarily sent on their way was that Neville was actually relieved that he wouldn’t have to deal with his grandson alone again, after their disastrous first meeting. He was hoping that a house full of young people—and he’d been informed that most of those arriving were close to Duncan’s age—would entertain the boy enough that he would feel more comfortable being there.
It had been obvious that that wasn’t the case, that Duncan resented this trip to England. Oddly enough, Neville had never considered that his heir might not want to be his heir. He wasn’t quite sure how to deal with that, or make his grandson more disposed to assuming the responsibilities that would come with his inheritance.
Duncan had much to learn, but perhaps immediately was not the time to begin. Getting the marriage accomplished and out of the way might be a better start, since Duncan did seem to be agreeable to that—for Archie’s sake.
That still infuriated Neville, that the boy was quite willing to please his Scots relative, but not his English one. To be expected, he supposed, but he still didn’t like it. However, he was grateful that Archibald had gotten the boy to agree to wed. He wouldn’t feel relieved himself until it was accomplished and a child conceived, since he feared that if the old Scot didn’t get a new heir in Duncan’s first son, as soon as Neville passed on, he would try to lure Duncan back to the Highlands.
Not an unfounded fear. His communications with Archibald MacTavish had led to one clear indication. The man was very possessive of what was his, and very stubborn and unbending in his demands. Neville didn’t like this dividing of heirs, as the Scot had proposed. Duncan was his only heir, no matter Elizabeth’s promise that the lad would come to England to claim and administer his inheritance.
That he was also Archibald’s only heir, Neville had no problem with. Managers could be hired to oversee the two large estates when Duncan needed to divide his time between one or the other. Neville’s holdings were not so complicated that they needed constant supervision. It would be nice if Duncan could devote himself fully to one country, but Englishmen were long accustomed to owning properties in far-off places, as well as on the home front.
It was a moot point, however. The Scotsman clearly felt that he’d lost Duncan because of Elizabeth’s promise, and so insisted on the continuation of the line that would give him a new heir. On that, at least, Neville could agree. What man wouldn’t like to know that his line would continue and not die out—before he died himself? For Duncan to produce lots of offspring would assure both men of that, but only if he got started on that producing soon.
Neville was pleased with his choice of bride for the boy. He probably should have made an effort to meet her prior to making the commitment, but he had still been so furious at Archibald for insisting on the most beautiful bride to be had, as if that were the only thing of importance when choosing a bride, that when his agents had promised she was just that, he had contacted her parents posthaste.
But having met her now for the first time that afternoon, he was not displeased. Ophelia Reid was most definitely as beautiful as the reports on her had claimed. She might have been a bit on the stiff side, and had seemed somewhat haughty, but that could easily be attributed to nervousness on her part, in meeting her future in-law.
And haughty pride was not an altogether bad thing, in his opinion. Neville had been known to give that impression himself on occasion. Depending on whom he was dealing with, a certain amount of condescension could be useful. But he was sure now that Duncan, once he saw her, would be quite taken with her. And that was all that mattered, really, that the boy be happy with his bride.
Sabrina could have been quite correct in her assumption that Ophelia would change her opinion about Duncan MacTavish once she saw him. She very well might have if they could have met alone, and under different circumstances.
But as Fate would have it, Ophelia was surrounded by her friends and admirers when Duncan made an appearance in the drawing room where they were all gathered. Having just come in from his ride, he was still wearing the clothes he’d donned for Neville’s benefit, and she saw them as a confirmation of the unfounded rumors she’d started about him. Unfortunately, so did her friends.
“Good God, he’s wearing a skirt,” was whispered next to her.
“That’s perfectly acceptable dress in Scotland,’ someone tried to point out. “It’s called a—”