“It’s a bloody skirt. And here I’d thought the marquis’s relative couldn’t possibly be as barbaric as anticipated, but apparently I was wrong and he is.”
Ophelia was embarrassed, a circumstance that she abhorred. She had expected to have to ridicule Duncan MacTavish in other ways, not have the rumors she’d spread about him end up being quite on the mark. Because of it, she wasn’t really seeing him clearly. She saw the kilt, and the red tints in his wildly windblown dark auburn hair, and she saw nothing else except that, ironically, she’d been right.
On the one hand, she was relieved. Her parents would have to see now that a Highlander, a barbaric one at least, simply wouldn’t do for her. They had heard the rumors. She’d made sure of that. But they had scoffed that they couldn’t possibly be true. They wouldn’t be scoffing now.
But on the other hand, it was one thing to be in control of a rumor and to have it work for your benefit, but quite another to be caught in the truth of it—and the embarrassment of it. And Ophelia hated embarrassment. Pink cheeks simply didn’t suit her a’tall.
So she was quite annoyed when Duncan presented himself after his moment of observing the room from the doorway, gave her a flourishing—she saw it as exaggerated—bow, and said, “Since there canna be a lassie more bonny in all o’ creation, you mun be Lady Ophelia.”
She had understood him well enough, but said, “When you can manage your compliments in English, I might pay attention to them. You might try dressing properly as well, or do you Highlanders actually prefer to look like women?”
To imply that there was anything even remotely feminine about a Scottish kilt was as grave an insult as could be imagined. Duncan could have forgiven her, though, attributing it to English ignorance, if she hadn’t said it for effect. He couldn’t miss the effect, the titters and outright chuckles from her audience, nor her smug look when she heard it.
His embarrassment was unmistakable, though, and apparently exactly what she was hoping for. Why, he couldn’t imagine, not that it mattered now. Yet what he had felt at first—thrilled, amazed, grateful even, and resigned that he’d have to be thanking his grandfather for this magnificent bride—made the blow all the worse.
He might have been truly surprised when he first saw her, and utterly dazzled by her beauty—she really was a bonny sight to behold. But at that precise moment, she could not have been more ugly in his eyes.
He said not another word to her. He turned on his heel and left the room to go in search of his grandfather, and found him immediately, since Neville was on the stairs coming down to join his guests.
Duncan didn’t pause on his way up, said simply in passing, “She won’t do.”
Neville, shocked at first by the very finality in his tone, would have gone after Duncan to find out why. But considering their less-than-amicable relationship thus far, he decided to find out by other means.
Having been so pleased with Ophelia Reid, Neville was understandably annoyed and wanting to know what had happened to ruin more than a year’s efforts in finding the perfect bride. He signaled his butler, who was standing duty in the hall below, and who had never failed him in knowing all. And this time was no different, since he was informed, verbatim, what had been said in the drawing room.
Silly chit, to not know any better than to voice her ignorance aloud. Beauty was desirable, but not when it came packaged with such stupidity. Duncan was quite right, she wouldn’t do at all.
Duncan had ridden off, leaving Sabrina on the hill, but then he hadn’t known that she would be going in the same direction as he. And she was in no hurry to follow, quite the contrary. She had sat back down and completely lost track of the time as she sorted through each and every single thing he’d said to her and preserved it for all time in her memory.
What an incredibly exciting afternoon for her, quite the most exciting she could ever remember having, but then she’d never before spent time, and discourse, with such a handsome man. And complicated. He hadn’t wanted to smile or laugh with her. She’d had to make an extra effort to get him to. And she wondered, after he’d gone, what could be so bothering him to cause such a sour mood.
But he’d been smiling when he left her, and that pleased her more than she could say, that she’d lightened his mood, because she had liked him. She didn’t usually make such a judgment that quickly, but in his case it was hard not to like him, his voice, his smile, his sense of humor when he allowed it loose, and of course, the look of him. He had disturbed her senses in a myriad of ways, but she still had enjoyed every moment she had spent in his presence.
But she wasn’t delusional. A man like him was not for the likes of her; he was for the Ophelias of the world. A shame, a pitiful shame really, that it was so, but there you had it. Beautiful for beautiful, and for her, a nice, plain-looking man, intelligent, resourceful, kind, someone who would enjoy taking walks with her, and laughing, and sitting on a hill watching the sunset together.
Oh, my, the sun really was about to set. Wherever had the time got to?
Sabrina leapt to her feet and ran, nearly all the way, to Summers Glade. She entered the house at the back, so as to encounter fewer people who might see her windblown appearance, and finding the servants’ stairs, made it up to her room. Her aunt Alice was there, however, so she wasn’t going to escape complete notice. But Alice had been impatiently waiting on her—and packing for her—so she really didn’t spare her more than a brief glance before bringing another dress to the open valise on the bed.
She did spare the query, “Wherever have you been? We should have left hours ago with everyone else.”
“Everyone else? So Lord Neville didn’t like having London descend on him after all?”
Alice tsked. “Whether he did or didn’t, he was agreeable to having a house party, then suddenly he wasn’t, but no more than to be expected from that senile old coot. And there we were just getting ready to go down, when his housekeeper came round to ask us to leave. Poor woman was quite embarrassed about it, too.”
Sabrina moved to help her aunt finish the packing. “You can’t blame Lord Neville, when having this gathering wasn’t his idea. He no doubt feels that Ophelia and her fiancé should have some time alone together, to become acquainted—”
“Hard to do that, m’dear, when the Reids have already left to return to London.”
“Left?” Sabrina frowned. “Just because the marquis declined to entertain grandly? Ophelia really wouldn’t get into a snit about that, would she?”
“I’ve no idea. Didn’t see them before they left. Hilary might have. You can ask her.”
Sabrina did that, while they waited in the entryway with their baggage. The housekeeper had sent for one of Lord Neville’s own vehicles, since they had no other transportation, having arrived with the Reids.
“Mary said she would write me,” Hilary replied in answer to Sabrina’s question. “She said she was too upset to talk of it just now, and poor dear, she did look quite upset.”
“And Ophelia? Did you see her?”
“Yes,” Hilary said, then in a whispered aside, ‘And she appeared to have finally been chastised by her father, for being so presumptuous. Quite pink, her one cheek was. I don’t hold with physical discipline, but Mary’s girl has been allowed to take on airs that should have been nipped in the bud long ago.”
Sabrina was amazed. “Her father actually slapped her?”
Hilary nodded. “That handprint on her cheek would suggest so.”
“But they didn’t object when she invited us here,” Sabrina pointed out.
“We hardly would have been noticed if it had only been us, but fifty-six people arrived here today, all invited by Ophelia, as if she were already the marquise and had every right to invite whomever she pleased. It’s no wonder Neville put his foot down after he finally got a full head count. I would have, too, I don’t mind saying, if the guests I do invite happen to invite fifty-six others. M’dear, that just isn’t proper form.”
Of course it wasn’t, and Ophelia did no doubt know that. But then Sabrina had never spoken to her aunts about Ophelia’s attempt to sabotage her engagement to be rid of what had been an unwanted fiancé. She just hadn’t felt comfortable talking about it, when she so disapproved of it, and Ophelia’s mother was Hilary’s good friend.
This latest scheme of Ophelia’s to have half the ton descending on Summers Glade had likely been done just to infuriate the marquis. But then that was before she had actually met her fiancé, and if she had met him by now, she was undoubtedly regretting what she had set in motion.
It was all very complicated, Ophelia’s plans and means of accomplishing them. Sabrina was quite glad to be out of it. She had been raised to be straightforward. Setting up complicated schemes in the hopes that they would have a particular desired effect just wasn’t her cup of tea. It had never been dull, being around Ophelia, but Sabrina was actually looking forward to a bit of dullness again.