Henry sounded so surprised that it was no wonder the man raised a questioning brow at him, but then unexpectedly, he burst out laughing. “Dinna tell me you’ve been caught by auld Archie’s prank.”
Stiffly, because he wasn’t used to being the butt of any jokes, Henry replied, “And what prank would that be?”
“This room, o’ course,” the man replied, still grinning. “He insists that any strangers be shown here, rather than tae the normal part o’ the house. Thinks it’s funny, he does, what they end up thinking aboot him.”
Henry blushed profusely, having apparently been caught by the prank. “I take it this room isn’t used much then—except for visitors?”
“Och, nay, it gets its use, when the sheep o’er-breed and there’s no’ enough room for them all in the barns when the snows come. And o’ course, during shearing season, when MacTavishes come from afar, we’re needing a big room tae feed them all in, and this one does well enough.”
Henry couldn’t tell if what had just been said was part of the prank or not. Frankly, he’d rather not find out, and the mention of that warm office did sound inviting, so he readily followed the young man, who led the way to it.
The rest of the house was indeed comfortably furnished and what one would expect of its grand style. If Henry hadn’t been in such a hurry to get to a fire, and the entryway not so dark that time of night, he might have noticed that before he’d been whisked into that strange drawing room-turned-stable. But it was easy to see, now that a lamp had been left on a table in the hall, the other rooms leading off of it and glimpses of the fine furnishings within.
The office he was directed to was small but neat—and warmed by a large brazier in the corner, indicating it had been in use by the young man when he had arrived. Henry was beginning to think it was Archibald’s factor or estate manager who had come to meet him, but he’d made enough assumptions, wrong ones at that, so he asked pointedly who the man was just as soon as he settled into the thickly stuffed leather chair across from his desk.
The answer, “I’m a MacTavish, o’ course,’ wasn’t all that enlightening, particularly when everyone on the property likely bore that name, but Henry was too tired by then from the journey and the battering the weather had added to it to press for further explanation.
“Has Lord Archibald been informed of my arrival?” he asked instead.
“The auld mon is abed by now, early riser that he is,” was the reply. “But you can be telling me what it is you’re wanting wi’ him.”
Whether factor or secretary, the man did indeed appear to handle Archibald’s affairs for him, even had an office in his house, so Henry could find no reason not to answer him. “I’m here to collect Lord Neville’s grandson.”
Oddly, that seemed to amuse this MacTavish. There was a slight curling of the lips, barely noticeable, but there nonetheless. His tone, however, was more obvious. Definite humor there.
“Are you indeed?” he replied slowly. “And what if his grandson doesna want tae be collected?”
Henry sighed mentally. He should have known better than to try to deal with employees.
“I really should be discussing this with Lord Archibald,” he said.
“D’you think so? When the grandson is of an age tae be deciding things for hisself?”
Henry was just tired enough to get annoyed. “There is nothing to decide here, young man,” he said crisply. “A promise was made and Lord Neville demands it be fulfilled.”
At that, the young man sat forward. And the frown he wore now was quite disconcerting. “What promise?”
“Lord Archibald is aware of it, and aware that the time has come—”
“What. .blasted … promise? I’m the grandson o’ them both, and I’ll be deciding if there was a promise that needs fulfilling if it concerns me.”
“You’re Duncan MacTavish?”
“Aye, and you’ll be telling me what the hell this is all aboot.”
Good God, you were never told?”
Duncan MacTavish was standing behind his desk now, leaning partially across it, and nearly shouting, “Does it sound like I ken what you’re talking aboot?”
Henry was incredulous. Duncan was twenty-one years of age. He knew that for a fact. And in all his years no one had told him, not even his parents? Nor had Lord Neville warned him that his grandson didn’t know. He had to wonder now if Neville was even aware of that himself.
Henry also admonished himself for not realizing sooner who Duncan was. His eyes, after all, were exact copies of Neville’s, a dark midnight blue. The nose, also, had that patrician slant that the Thackerays were known for; at least, each ancestor portrayed in the gallery at Summers Glade sported that exact same nose. Nothing else about the young Duncan, though, resembled the marquis. Although Henry hadn’t known Neville when he was a young man, he’d seen the portrait of him done when he was this same age.
There was nothing remarkable about Neville Thackeray, fourth Marquis of Birmingdale, to stand out and draw particular notice to him. He’d been a plain-looking aristocrat in his youth, and had not improved much with age, now that he was in his late seventies. His young grandson, however, was quite the opposite.
Duncan’s brawny size and height must come from the MacTavishes. His dark red hair certainly did. And he was handsome, very much so, in a rugged sort of way. It was that very ruggedness, a harsh masculinity, coupled with his size, that belied his youthful age.
Henry knew how old the lad was, yet if he didn’t, he’d swear he was much older. Perhaps the Highlands aged one prematurely, the harsh clime, the hardships entailed with living in such an isolated place.
As for the question that had been directed at him, Henry really wished that Archibald MacTavish were present at the moment. He knew of the promise, and the others added to it, that the two old men had finally, after many heated letters sent between them, agreed upon. He should have explained the situation to young Duncan before now.
“It was a promise made by your mother before you were born,” Henry said at last. “Without making it, she wouldn’t have been allowed to many your father. She made it gladly, though. She loved your father. And no one objected at the time, not your father, who wanted her any way he could have her—he loved her too—nor his father, Archibald.”
“Sir Henry, if you dinna spit it oout, what that promise was, I’m liable tae toss you back intae that storm this verra second.”
It was said calmly. Even Duncan’s expression had turned inscrutable. Yet Henry didn’t doubt that the lad meant every word. And he could hardly blame him for his upset. Why hadn’t anyone told him before now?
“You, or rather, your mother’s firstborn son, which turned out to be you, were promised to Lord Neville for his heir, if he sired no other heirs, which he never did.”
Duncan sat back down. “Is that all?”
Henry wasn’t sure now how to proceed with the lad. Any other young man would undoubtedly feel that this was the luckiest day of his life, to be a great lord’s heir when he hadn’t known he would be. But he also knew how Highlanders felt about the English, and Duncan MacTavish had been raised a Highlander. He had also never met his English grandfather, nor ever stepped foot in England.
“Do you realize what a great honor this is, Lord Duncan?” Henry tried to point out.
“I’m no’ a laird, so dinna be calling me—
“Actually, you are,” Henry was quick to interrupt. “One of Lord Neville’s lesser titles has already been bestowed on you, as well as the estate—”
“Be damned if it has!” Duncan was on his feet again. “You willna be turning me into an Englishmen just because that auld mon wants it so.”
“You are half English.”
That gained Henry a seriously disgusted look that had him flinching, but Duncan’s reply was again a quiet one. It was amazing how easily he could switch from fury to calm and back again.
“You ken that I dinna have tae accept that English title?” Duncan said.
“Do you understand that you will become the Marquis of Birmingdale whether you want to be or not?”
There was a long, uncomfortable—at least for Henry—moment of silence, which included a bit of teeth grinding on Duncan’s part before he said, “So why are you here tae tell o’ this now, when, as you said, the marquis isna dead yet?”
“You have come of age. Part of your mother’s promise was that you would be sent to Lord Neville at this time, if he was still living, which he is, so that he could himself instruct you on your responsibilities, and also so that he can see you settled properly before he dies.”