Two reputations blackened this evening, and both by the same woman. Mavis felt truly sorry for both people, their only fault that Ophelia didn’t like them. The Birmingdale heir would undoubtedly weather the storm. He was merely being made a laughingstock by Ophelia’s ridicule of him, so that her parents would be mortified enough to break off the engagement they had arranged. But with a title like his and the huge estate that came with it, he’d still easily find another bride.
Not so the Lambert girl. Bad blood was bad blood that might be passed along to heirs, and what gentleman would want to take that chance by marrying her? Which was really too bad. Mavis had genuinely liked the girl. She was nice, a simple, innocent quality hard to encounter in London, and amusing besides, once she’d opened up. And Mavis felt partly responsible for turning Ophelia against her, by mentioning her remarkably pretty eyes.
Mavis shook her head mentally in disgust. She really was going to have to find a new group of companions. Being friends with Ophelia Reid was simply too detrimental to one’s well-being. Spiteful, vain bitch. Mavis hoped, she really did, that Ophelia would have to marry the Birmingdale heir after all. Serve her right to have a husband whom she’d managed to get all of London to scorn.
It was not a night to be traveling abroad, was possibly the worst night of the year, with snow swirling in ever-thickening gusts, preventing visibility even with a lantern held aloft. And cold. Sir Henry Myron had never in his life experienced such bone-chilling cold.
The weather wouldn’t have been so extreme in England. He would probably have thought nothing of a little snow. But so far north in the Scottish Highlands, he would have been hard-pressed not to freeze even without the snow trying to help him toward that end. How anyone could live in such a harsh climate and like it was a wonder to Sir Henry, who had been tasked with coming here.
The worst part of the trail had been passed, a narrow path across a low mountain. Henry wouldn’t have called it a mountain. It seemed more like a gigantic rock jutting out of the ground, bare of trees, grass, even dirt, just a big granite thing blocking the way that needed to be passed, and the only way to do so was to climb over it by foot or on horse.
He’d had to leave his carriage behind at a nearby kirk. But then he’d been warned by his guide that he would have to, and so had rented a mount for the last leg of the journey along its narrow trails.
They should have stayed the night at that kirk. The churchman there had offered them beds for the night. But they were so close to the end of the journey, just an hour away, that Henry had insisted on going on. Of course, it hadn’t been snowing then. The snow had come from the other side of that huge rock, or rather, low mountain, blasting them with stinging flakes as soon as they topped the rise.
Henry was beginning to worry that they would both be lost and freeze to death, their bodies not found until the spring thaw. It was impossible to see even two feet in front of them, yet the guide continued on, as if he could still see the path, now covered in snow, as if he knew exactly where he was going. And so he did.
The large stone manor house loomed out of the white-speckled darkness so suddenly, they were at the door before Sir Henry had even noticed they had reached their destination. The guide was pounding on that door. Henry barely heard it, the wind was shrieking so loudly. But the door opened and warmth gushed out, and they were both ushered straightaway to a large crackling fire.
Henry was numbed. After a short while, though, he began to thaw, and the shivering began just after that. A woman was fussing over them and taking about the foolishness of being out in such a storm—at least he thought that was what she was saying. He wasn’t quite sure, though, her Scots brogue was so thick. But she piled heavy woolen blankets over his shoulders, and wrapped his stiff fingers around a cup of hot whisky, staying to make sure he drank every drop of it, which he was glad to do.
A short while later, he began to think that he and his frozen toes might survive after all, a painful discovery as feeling began to return to those extremities, but welcome nonetheless. And he finally began to take closer note of his surroundings.
He was surprised. Henry wasn’t sure what he had expected to find at the home of a rich Highland lord, and one so isolated as this one was—well, to be truthful, he had expected something medieval, an old, crumbling fortress perhaps, or merely a big farm. The MacTavishes were sheep farmers, after all, or so he’d been told.
But what he was seeing was something altogether different, not quite a manor house that he might have passed in the shires of England, yet surely in that design. Built all of stone—Scotland wasn’t known for its abundance of lumber—it could have been furnished in the style and comfort of a manor house, yet what should have been a large drawing room looked like an old medieval hall instead.
The house was modern in design. The occupants weren’t, apparently. It was as if whoever had built it had done so in protest, that he had been raised in one of the older-style castles and that was the feel he was most comfortable with and was going to adhere to.
Trestle tables, of all things, and wooden benches lined the floral-papered walls. He didn’t doubt that they were pulled out for dinner to accommodate the household all sitting down at once to eat, just as in days of old. The windows weren’t covered with drapery, but with sheepskins still thick with fleece. He might allow the skins would keep out the cold better than any drapery could, but sheepskins? There wasn’t a sofa or comfortable chair to be seen, just a few more unpadded benches near the fire. And hay on the floor.
When he noticed it he simply stared, then finally shook his head. He’d been right, after all. The MacTavish Highlanders did live medievally.
But there were no MacTavishes about, nor anyone else for that matter, though the hour was still early in the evening. The large Great Hall was empty, except for the woman who was returning now with two more cups of hot whisky. But she wasn’t alone, not this time. On her heels came a tall young man who stopped in the doorway to give Henry’s guide a nod—they were apparently acquainted, but then the guide had said he’d been here before. The man then stared at Henry.
After having a good look at what should have been a modern drawing room but wasn’t, Henry might have expected at that point to see people wearing bearskins, or rather, sheepskins, but no, the Scotsman was dressed in trousers and frock coat. He could have walked down a fashionable London street without gaining undue notice—except for his height perhaps, and the large body that went with a six-foot frame.
He said nothing, though, and he didn’t look too pleased that an unknown guest had arrived. Or perhaps the unfriendly look he wore was normal for him.
It was quite disconcerting for Henry, though. Nearly twice the boy’s age, yet he was briefly intimidated. Well, no wonder. Highland Scots were nothing like the agreeable Lowlanders in the South who had been dealing with the English for centuries. Social progress was stagnant in these far reaches of the realm, so isolated due to the rugged land itself, and the weather besides. Many of the northern clans lived just as they had in days of old, in hardship but in strict obedience to their clan chief.
Lord Archibald MacTavish wasn’t a clan chief, but he was head of his small branch of the clan, and certainly head of his family, which was extensive in distant cousins, but unfortunately, very lacking in an immediate heir, since he had outlived all four of his sons. And this was the reason Henry’s visit was not going to be received very well. He would be lucky if he wasn’t kicked back out into the storm, once he made it clear why he was there.
But the young man in the doorway couldn’t know why he was there, thus his unwelcoming demeanor was unrelated, was perhaps natural, or perhaps only reserved for Englishmen. And he’d know Henry was English, since he had spoken to the woman who had aided him, and she’d obviously gone to fetch the boy.
And then he came forward, abruptly. And as he neared the light from the fire and the two torches burning on either side of the mantel—the only light in the entire room—Henry was able to see that he wasn’t as young as he’d first thought. In his mid-twenties was more likely. At least there was a maturity in his look that spoke of an older age, even if from a distance he looked much younger.
“If the laddie here wasna wi’ you, mon”—the young man nodded toward Henry’s guide—“I’d be thinking you’re lost. So what’s a Sassenach wanting wi’ Archie MacTavish?”
Henry was quick to introduce himself, but his answer was suitably grave. “I’m here on a matter of urgency and no small importance. I am employed by Lord Neville Thackeray as his solicitor, who is the—”
“I ken who Thackeray is,” the young man cut in impatiently. “He’s still living then?”
“Well, yes, at least he was when I left England, but it’s uncertain how much longer that will be true. He hasn’t been well, you see, and at his advanced age, there is no telling when he will take a turn for the worst.”
The young Scot nodded curtly, then said in his light brogue, “Come tae my office where ‘tis warmer. Damned drafty in here.”