The new tone, reminding him of Archie, nearly had Duncan relaxing. He had to mentally remind himself that this old man wasn’t the grandfather who’d raised him and who’d earned his love. This one, never a part of his life, meant nothing to him at all.
But he came forward and stood directly across from Neville’s desk. And grew quite uncomfortable under the close examination Neville was giving him. Squirming came to mind, it was certainly what he felt like doing, though he managed to stand still.
“Elizabeth would be proud of you, if she could see you now.”
It was a compliment of sorts, from Neville, not from his mother. It had the effect of annoying Duncan rather than flattering him.
“And how would you be knowing what she’d feel, when you ne’er saw her again after she wed?”
The bitterness was unmistakable. Neville would have had to be deaf not to hear it, and some of his other senses might be failing him at his advanced age, but not his hearing. He stiffened. If he’d been willing to talk of the past, he changed his mind.
Abruptly he said, “Lady Ophelia and her parents will arrive today. It would be in our best interest if you would make an effort to impress her. Although she will benefit more from this marriage than you will, I have been informed that she is extremely popular with the London crowd, and has had countless other offers, so until the wedding, we will need to keep her happy. These young people today,” he added in disgust, “think nothing of breaking commitments on a whim.”
Duncan wondered if that last had been said just for his benefit. They might be blood related, but Neville had never made any effort to contact him, even by letter, before the time of “fulfilling the promise,” and even then it was to Archie that he’d written, not to Duncan. There was no way he could know what manner of man Duncan had turned into—unless Archie had told him. He frowned to himself, wondering just what Archie had told Neville about him, in all those letters that had passed between them.
“I dinna break commitments—once I make them, but I’ve no’ made one yet.”
A look of surprise. “Didn’t Sir Henry tell you of your engagement—?”
“He told me o’ the engagement o’ your making, which wasna my doing. D’you ken yet, Lord Neville, that ‘tis a grown man you have standing here, no’ a lad who needs decisions made for him? I’m here for my mother’s sake. I’ll wed for Archie’s sake, since he seems tae want that done quickly. But I’ll be picking my own bride. If your Lady Ophelia suits me, I may even wed her, but by no means am I committed tae do so until I do the committing m’self.”
“I see,” Neville said slowly, stiffly. “You’ve come here with a chip on your shoulder—”
“D’you think so? I’d call it a powerful dislike for being here m’self. Someone—you, Archie, my mother—someone should have bluidy well told me aboot that promise of hers sooner than Sir Henry did.”
Duncan left the room then before he could say even more that he’d regret later. He shouldn’t have revealed his true feelings. He hadn’t meant to, at least not so soon.
It wasn’t surprising that Sabrina would find her way outside for a nice walk the first chance she got. She loved the seasons, all four of them, and even when it was its coldest, she could enjoy a brisk walk. Nature, at its harshest or its most beautiful, was always a marvel to her. She took pleasure in lifting her face to the rain, rather than running for cover, of feeling the wind in her hair, the sun on her cheeks. Her aunts had teased her as a child that she had fairy blood and had merely misplaced her wings.
She climbed the hill that she had sometimes stopped on in the past, when coming from the other direction during one of her walks. It was as close as she had ever come to Summers Glade before, that hill, but it had always offered a perfect view of Lord Neville’s large estate. She had viewed it in each of the seasons, so knew that the dreary look of it now would change come springtime, when the stately old trees around it donned their green mantles again.
It was truly a lovely old home, and now that she’d seen the inside of it, she was quite impressed. A shame that Lord Neville didn’t entertain more often, to show it off to his neighbors, who, like the Lamberts, had always been most curious about him and his home.
Of course, he really wasn’t entertaining now, though he did have guests of the unexpected sort. Whether he would be entertaining them, though, was still a matter of speculation. In fact, Sabrina could return from her walk to find her aunts packing once again. That wouldn’t bother her much, though she was looking forward to finally meeting the esteemed Lord Neville, after living so close to him all these years but never actually seeing him, even from afar.
But she was in no hurry to return and find out, either way, and reaching the top of the hill, she sat down, with no thought to the grass or dirt stains she might pick up, and simply enjoyed the view. Her aunts use to complain to their friends that Sabrina never outgrew her cloths as a child because they were always ruined by bramble tears or grassy stains long before they needed replacing due to growth.
She had been careless in that respect and still was, but then her appearance as perceived by others had never been high on her list of concerns. When there wasn’t much to work with or improve upon, why waste time trying?
She removed her bonnet and set it aside on the ground next to her. It would have blown away if the ribbons weren’t still in her hand, but it did bounce around on the ground, unnoticed by her, getting quite demolished. She had closed her eyes, to better feel the wind as it caught her hair and sent it flying in all directions about her head. She chuckled as a strand whisked across her nose, tickling.
That her eyes were closed, though, and the wind loud in her ears, wasn’t the reason she didn’t see or hear the rider coming and was nearly run over. He had simply come up so quickly from the other side of the hill behind her that he was upon her before either of them noticed.
It really was a close call, so close that when the horse reared up and was jerked to the side to avoid her, its hooves came down right on top of her bonnet. Not that she noticed that—yet. She was too busy rolling out of the way, which had been quicker to do than to try and find her footing under her heavy skirts.
But she wasn’t the only one to do some rolling on the ground. The rider had been unseated when his horse reared up, and landing where the hill started to sharply decline, he’d found no flat purchase and so had rolled a bit before he could stop himself.
Sabrina was the first to recover, though, and get back to her feet. The man was sitting there with his legs spread wide, looking somewhat dazed, or at least he was probably wondering what had happened. The horse wandered off, snorting, but not far. He took Sabrina’s bonnet with him, still stuck to his foot as it was, and was now trying to eat the silk flowers he noticed on it.
It was a big man sitting there. She took note of that first, couldn’t help but note it, the thickness of his short winter coat emphasizing it across some very broad shoulders. But it was his legs she stared at. She couldn’t help it, they were somewhat bare, at least the knees were, between the kilt he wore and his high boots.
A kilt in winter—how unusual. She’d seen Scotsmen in kilts before, as they passed through Oxbow on their way south or back north, but only in the summer. Most of them preferred to dress warmer for the more brisk seasons. Did he not feel the cold?
She knew who he might be, Ophelia’s fiancé. The kilt and the dark red hair suggested that he was at least Scottish, and Summers Glade, the direction he’d been heading, was expecting a Scotsman. And oh, my, was Ophelia going to be surprised and likely change her mind real quick about wanting to be rid of him. How could she not, when he was so very handsome, he took even Sabrina’s breath away?
He stood up, surprising her that he wasn’t just big, but very tall as well. And he dusted off his kilt in such a way that some thigh became visible, causing Sabrina to blush. He hadn’t noticed her yet, though, and even so, her cheeks were likely pinkened enough by the wind for a blush not to make much difference.
“Are you all right?”
He swung about to face her. “Och, so there you are. I should be asking you that. I didna see you sitting there till it was almost tae late.”
She smiled at him. His brogue was light and pleasant, if his voice somewhat deep. She liked the sound of it, though, strange to her ears, but lyrical. And those eyes, so dark a blue, quite disconcerting now that they were gazing directly at her.
“I mun apologize. The beastie and I dinna get along tae well,” he said, giving the horse a disgruntled glower. “But then I’m no’ much of a horsemon tae begin wi’, preferring tae walk if the distance isna tae far.”
How coincidental. Her sentiments exactly. She could ride, and very well. She’d been taught as a child as a matter of course, a rounding out of her accomplishments. She just found sidesaddles rather uncomfortable, and besides, she had two sturdy legs that the good Lord meant her to make use of.