“I suppose, then, he’d even be picking me a bride?” Duncan said sarcastically.
“Well, yes, actually, he has,’ Henry replied with the utmost reluctance.
But it was at that point that Duncan MacTavish burst out laughing.
Duncan had been amused because he hadn’t believed that his English grandfather’s gall could actually affect him. Neville Thackeray could pick for him a dozen brides. Who was to force him to marry any of them? He was his own man. If Neville had wanted to direct and control him as his solicitor was claiming, he should have sent for him sooner, before any and all decisions were his own to make.
The entire situation was incredible. Archibald had turned over to Duncan the running of the farms, the mines, and the other MacTavish enterprises when he’d turned eighteen. Why would he have done that if he’d known all along that Duncan wouldn’t be there to carry on? A promise made before he was born, that everyone knew of—except him. Utterly incredible.
He had nothing against the English personally. His own mother had been English, after all, though after she became a MacTavish, that was pretty much overlooked. It was an ingrained animosity for him, the result of the distrust and dislike he’d witnessed all his life. Yet he was expected to go to England, to live among the English? Even to marry one? Be damned if he would.
His amusement didn’t last long after he turned the little Englishman over to Archibald’s housekeeper to put to bed. And he spent a restless night himself, by turns amazed and infuriated over the magnitude of what had been kept secret from him. In the end, though, he decided that Archibald must have a plan to get him out of fulfilling that long-ago promise. Nothing else made sense to him. And he’d find out what it was first thing in the morning.
As expected, Archibald was already in the kitchen while dawn was still making its first appearance. Duncan joined him there as he did each morning. They were both early risers. And the kitchen, the warmest room in the house at that hour, was where they took their meals, the formal dining room too big and drafty for just the two of them.
Such had been the case ever since the last of Archibald’s four sons had died fourteen years ago. The last had been Duncan’s father. Two of the sons had died due to pure carelessness, two due to nature’s fury. Duncan’s parents died together. They had been sailing to France to sign contracts for a new market for MacTavish wool. Such a short trip, yet the storm had been so sudden and so violent, the ship never made it to its French port.
Duncan would have been on that ship as well if he hadn’t experienced such a horrid bout of seasickness before it even set sail. Archie, there that day to see his kin on their way, had insisted he stay behind. Duncan had been disappointed. He had wanted to travel. At seven years of age, it would have been his first trip so far from home—and his last.
Being the last of Archibald’s direct line, Duncan had been coddled thereafter, and so overprotected, he often felt stifled by Archie’s concern. He couldn’t blame the old man, though. It couldn’t be easy, outliving all your children. And Duncan was his only grandchild.
Two of Archibald’s other sons had been married before they died, but three pregnancies between them had gone bad, so the two wives, both being childless, had returned to their parents when their husbands died. The last son had become a priest. It was falling off the roof of his kirk when he’d been repairing it that had taken his life.
Archie had experienced much tragedy in his life. Duncan had as well, having known all but one of his uncles. It was amazing, though, that Archibald wasn’t a bitter old man. He wasn’t even that old, though he was certainly referred to as the “auld” man by one and all. But he’d married young himself, and his four sons had each been born on the heels of the other, in the four years following his marriage. His wife likely would have given him many more children if she hadn’t herself died giving birth to the last.
He’d never remarried, though he certainly could have, and still could. He was only sixty-two this year. Most of his red hair was still red, if somewhat faded, the gray at his temples and in his beard giving him a distinguished look, or it did when he took the time to fancy himself up. Having retired, though, when he turned over his many concerns to Duncan, he rarely left home these days, and at home he was usually a bit on the unkempt side.
Having no one to impress other than the cook, whom he’d kept up a long-standing flirtation with, and who, unfortunately, never took him seriously, Archie could often still be found in his bedclothes in the middle of the day.
Today he was fully dressed, combed, and scrubbed, and he wasn’t looking too pleased when Duncan joined him in the kitchen. So he’d been told of the solicitor’s arrival. Good. It allowed Duncan to get right to the point of his own concern the moment he sat down.
“Why did you no’ tell me, Archie?”
Archibald grimaced, and not because Duncan used his first name. That wasn’t a matter of disrespect, but as he would have it. And he didn’t try to evade the question by pretending he didn’t know what Duncan was talking about.
“Because I didna want ye dividing yer loyalties afore ye needed tae.”
“What dividing? My loyalty is here and will always be here.”
Archie smiled at that, looking rather smug for a moment. But then he sighed.
“Ye hae tae ken how it was, laddie. My Donald was fair smitten by yer muther. There was nothing for it but that he hae her, despite her being English. But she was a young lassie, no’ even eighteen yet. And her da was no’ happy that she had her heart set on Donald as well. Nor did he want her living sae far from home. He refused tae let them marry. For nigh a year he refused. But he loved his daughter, and couldna help but see she was dying o’ heartbreak. Sae he compromised. He demanded Donald’s heir, my heir, be sent tae him at his—yer—majority. If she’d promise that, then she could marry Donald.”
“I ken why the promise was made, I dinna ken why I’m the last tae know aboot it.”
“Tae be honest, lad, I’d been hoping that auld bastard would die long afore now, and his solicitors wouldna know aboot ye. Surely he mun have some other kin somewhere, that they could’ve been finding tae give his damn title tae. But nay, he’s going tae bluidy well outlive us all.”
The last was said in such disgust, Duncan might have laughed if he weren’t at the center of this dilemma. And he hadn’t heard yet what Archie’s plan was, to get him out of it. But neither had Archie finished answering his question.
He reminded him, “And my mother? Why did she keep it a secret from me?”
“‘Twas ne’er a secret. Ye were just tae young afore she died, lad. She would hae told ye when ye were a bit aulder. She was no’ unhappy wi’ her promise. She was English, after all, and pleased that ye would be the next Marquis o’ Birmingdale following her da. She held much stock in titles, ye ken. Most o’ the English do.”
“You should have told me, Archie. You shouldna have let it come tae the day o’ collecting, wi’ me no’ knowing. And what am I tae do wi’ that wee Englishmon upstairs who thinks I’ll be going wi’ him?”
“But ye will be going wi’ him.”
“The devil I will!”
Duncan shot out of his chair so quickly, it toppled over to the floor, startling the cook across the room into dropping a knife, which caused her to shriek when it almost stabbed her toes. She cast Duncan a glare. He didn’t notice, glaring himself at his grandfather. Archibald, wisely, kept his eyes on the table.
“You canna sit there and tell me you’ve no’ figured a way oout o’ this,” Duncan continued hotly. “I willna believe it! Who’s tae manage here, then, if I go?”
“I managed well enough afore ye took o’er. I’m no’ sae auld—”
“You’ll drive yourself intae an early grave—
It was Archie’s chuckle, this time, that cut Duncan off. “Dinna think tha’ my giving ye the reins meant I was ready tae retire. Nay, ye just needed the learning, laddie, and hands on was the best way tae get it.”
“For what purpose then? So I could go off and be a blasted marquis instead?”
“Nay, sae ye’d hae firsthand knowledge tha’ ye could teach tae yer son.”
There had been many letters between the two old men—and much arguing. This was explained to Duncan that morning as he ignored the breakfast Cook set before him, and asked for a dram of whisky instead, ignoring, too, the stem look the old girl gave him for imbibing so early of a morn. The arguing had not been over whether Duncan would go to England, but over who would lay claim to his firstborn son.
“The one that’ll be taking o’er here,” Archie explained. “Nae one expects ye tae divide yerself, Duncan lad. We’ve tae many businesses here, and there’ll be tae many duties there in England for ye tae assume. That’d be tae much for any mon, and tae long a journey for ye tae be making constantly back and forth.”