But since Neville had lived in the last century, it wasn’t all that surprising, after a bit of thought, that he might prefer the gaily carved and painted look of it mat he had no doubt been raised with. Duncan would not be a bit surprised now if his grandfather showed up in one of those silly, puffy old white wigs, which had been the rage of the day when such furnishings had been in high style.
It took four servants—the haughty butler, who turned him over to a downstairs maid, who then turned him over to an upstairs maid, and finally the no-nonsense housekeeper—to show Duncan to his room in the upper regions. He’d almost been laughing by the time the housekeeper arrived to welcome him, that it had taken so many people to get him upstairs, when any one of them could have just pointed the way. But that was by no means the end of the procession.
A new maid showed up to light the fire in his room. Then another showed up carrying hot water and towels. Yet another followed on her heels with a large platter of morning-type refreshments, biscuits, sausages, and a few sweet pasties, with small pots of both hot tea and chocolate. Not ten minutes after that one left, yet another young miss arrived to ask if there was anything else he might be needing.
And lastly, Willis arrived.
Willis was a thin little man of middle years on the high side of middle, who proudly proclaimed he’d been chosen to be Duncan’s valet. He had brown hair, what little hadn’t receded on him, and brown eyes, his expression what one might call true haughtiness—and here Duncan had thought he’d seen the most haughty one could get in the Glade’s butler, but Willis managed to appear even more proud and lofty.
Duncan wasn’t so ignorant that he didn’t know what a valet was for. He was just so surprised that one was in his room expecting to do for him, that Willis was already unpacking his traveling valise—which he’d had to fight with a footman to bring upstairs himself—before Duncan had a chance to tell him he wasn’t needed.
And then he heard, “A skirt, m’lord?”
“That’s a kilt, y’dafty mon!” Duncan fairly roared over the insult, his cheeks turning hot with color.
Willis was undisturbed by his tone, merely tsked as he moved to put the kilt away in the bureau. Duncan stared at him aghast. The insult had been bad enough, but for the little man to ignore his fury over it?
Tight lipped, Duncan ordered, “Get oout.”
That did get Willis’s full attention, but he merely said, “M’lord?”
To the perplexed look he was getting, Duncan explained, “I’ve ne’er needed a valet in m’life, and I’ll no’ be needing one now.”
But instead of getting huffy and leaving, Willis simply tsked again and said, “It’s no fault of your own where you were raised, but you’re in England now and will want to do things properly, I’m sure.”
“Will I now?” Duncan replied ominously, his temper on the rise again.
“Of course you will, and of course, you do need me. No gentleman of any consequence would even think of dressing himself.”
“I’m no’ a gentlemon, no’ a lord, and I’ll be bluidy well dressing myself. Now be gone, mon, afore I have tae toss you oout.”
At that, Willis finally took him seriously and looked somewhat panicked. “You wouldn’t really dismiss me, would you? It will reflect horribly on me.”
“Just because I dinna need you?”
“But no one will believe that,” Willis assured him. “No, this will be my fault alone, and prevent me from ever aspiring to such a prestigious position again. I will be quite ruined, m’lord, if I’m sent back to London.”
Duncan would swear the man’s lower lip just quivered. He sighed. He wasn’t a mean man, just one set in his own ways. Yet he had no desire to be responsible for someone’s being “quite ruined.” Bedamned, he didn’t like compromising.
“Verra well, you can see tae the pressing and cleaning o’ what’s tae be worn, but I’ll be doing the dressing, is that clear?”
“Thank you, m’lord,” Willis said, returning to his haughty and gratingly condescending tone. “And may I summon the marquis’s tailor for some fittings, or do you have more trunks that will soon be arriving?”
Duncan just stared at the man. Give an Englishman an inch
Sabrina didn’t see it as such a tragedy, the revelation of her family history. But then the London ton was so funny, in their reaction to it, that she was more amused than not. Where people had previously looked at her with the mere curiosity reserved for any newcomer on the scene, they now gave her looks that said clearly, You’re still alive? But not for long, I’ll warrant. One silly lady had even screamed, thinking her a ghost. Sabrina could just imagine how distorted the rumors had been before they reached the screamer’s ears.
Her prospects of finding a husband in London were now quite done in, of course. After all, what gentleman marrying to get himself an heir, and that was why a good many of them married, would want a wife who might not live long enough to produce that heir? Both her aunts were still living many years after the tragedies, obviously breaking the chain, but did anyone take that into account? No, that was definitely overlooked by the sophisticated London ton.
It did no good, really, to tell anyone the truth about her family. They would believe what they wanted to believe, and didn’t the evidence support their belief? Hardly, but then the truth didn’t make such juicy gossip. Much more interesting to insist that it must run in the family, the inclination to end one’s Ufe before it was ready to be ended.
Unfortunately, Sabrina’s great-grandfather Richard had done just that, and his flighty wife, unable to bear up under the tragedy of it, had followed suit. That might have been the end of it, though. Their surviving daughter, Lucinda, after all, was already married at the time to William Lambert, an earl of strong constitution, and they already had two daughters themselves in Hilary and Alice. Sabrina’s father, John, had yet to be born, which was why the old duke’s title went to another distant branch of the family whom the Lamberts had never even met.
No one, in the family at least, was quite sure whether Lucinda jumped from that upstairs balcony or accidently fell off. Her health had declined somewhat after she bore William a son, and she’d been blue-deviled for months after John’s birth, so it was quite possible that she had taken the same route as her parents. But whether she did or not, no one else doubted for a minute that she did, thus the scandal resurfaced and stayed around long enough to ruin Hilary and Alice’s chance of a successful London Season.
It should have ended there. After all, there was new blood in the family now from the earl’s side. And the talk of “bad blood” did die down by the time John married Elizabeth, and Sabrina came along from that union.
But then her parents had the misfortune to consume some tainted food and they both died of it before the doctor arrived. Even the dog died, having been given the scraps. And two of the kitchen maids, having had only a small taste of it, had been severely cramped as well. The doctor himself claimed it had been bad food. But it didn’t take long for the rumor to start that they had taken poison—deliberately.
Hilary and Alice knew better. Their brother and his wife had loved each other and were very happy. Their deaths, at least, were truly accidental. But once again, no one else would believe that.
Her aunts, not surprisingly, were devastated that the scandal was running wild once again, all these years later, but then they’d had such high hopes for Sabrina, which were now quite dashed. They couldn’t imagine who had been mean and spiteful enough to reintroduce that old scandal to the London gossip mills, not that it would make any difference to know who did. The damage was done. And because of it, there was really no point in staying any longer in London.
Sabrina was actually glad to be going home. London, she had found, with all its bustle and glitter, just didn’t suit her at all. It was much too crowded, mostly dirty, the air more often than not thick with soot and smoke. She sorely missed the pristine cleanliness of a walk in the snow-covered countryside, and the earthy scents of animals and foliage in warmer months, rather than people and garbage.
She was glad that she had attended at least one ball, since she wasn’t likely to ever find another to attend at home, and a few other parties before the gossip about her ran rampant. She at least knew what it was like now, London. Better to know than to always wonder, so the trip wasn’t a complete waste of time in her mind.
And unlike her aunts, she wasn’t worried that she would probably never marry now. On the contrary, she figured she would find a nice man someday, one intelligent enough to see through the rumors to the truth. So a few of her ancestors had actually killed themselves. That hardly meant that her entire family was fated to do the same. And if she didn’t find anyone, well, that would be no great tragedy either, and her aunts were proof of that, too.