"Areye scared, ninny?"
Roslynn Chadwick turned away from the coach window and the passing scenery she had been staring at for the last hour without actually seeing. Scared? She was alone in the world now with no guardian, no family worth mentioning. She was on her way to an uncertain future and leaving behind all that was familiar to her. Scared? She was terrified.
But Nettie MacDonald wasn't to know that, not if Roslynn could help it. Nettie was too uneasy herself, had been ever since they'd crossed the English border yesterday morning, though she too tried to hide it by turning querulous, as was her way. Nettie had been all chipper and cheer before that, even while crossing the Lowlands, which she disdained. A Highlander all her life, and that was forty-two years'
worth, Nettie never thought the day would come when she would be forced to leave her beloved Highlands, let alone cross the border into England. England! But Nettie wouldn't be left behind, no, not dear Nettie.
Roslynn managed a smile for Nettie's benefit, and even a bit of a twinkle in her hazel eyes to reassure her abigail. "Och, and what've I to be scared of, Nettie? Didna we manage to sneak off in the dead of night wi' none the wiser? Geordie'll be searching Aberdeen and Edinburgh for weeks and weeks and never guess we've absconded to London."
"That he will." Nettie spared herself a pleased smile for their success so far, forgetting for the moment her fear and dislike of the English. Her dislike of Geordie Cameron went much deeper. "And I hope that devil chokes on his spleen when he realizes ye've escaped his foul plans, that I do. I didna like Duncan, bless him, making ye promise what ye had tae, but he knew what was best fer ye. And dinna be thinking I'm sae fashed I didna hear ye fergetting yer proper English, lass, that Duncan brought that fine snobbish tutor tae be teaching ye. Ye'll no' be fergetting it, especially now we're here among the devil's kin."
Roslynn grinned when this last was delivered in Nettie's most scolding tone, and couldn't resist teasing a bit more. "When I see an Englishmon will be soon enough for me to be remembering my proper English.
You wouldna deny me this wee bit of time left when I dinna have to be thinking about every word I say, would you now?"
"Humph! Tis only when ye're that upset that ye ferget anymore, and well I ken it."
Of course Nettie knew it. Nettie knew Roslynn better than herself sometimes. And if Roslynn wasn't in a temper, which was when she most often forgot herself and lapsed into the Scottish brogue she had picked up from Gramp and Nettie, she was still upset, and with reason. But not enough to forget the proper English that had been drummed into her by her tutor. Roslynn sighed.
"I hope the trunks got there, or we'll be in a fine pickle." They had both left with only one change of clothes, to further outwit her cousin Geordie, just in case someone saw them leave and told him.
"That's the least of yer worries, lass. Sure and it saved time bringing that London modiste tae Cameron Hall tae be making ye all those bonny dresses, sae ye dinna have tae be fitted when we get there.
Duncan, bless him, thought of everything, even sending the trunks ahead, one by one, sae Geordie wouldna suspect anything if he was watching."
And Nettie had thought it was such a lark, sneaking off in the middle of the night as they had, with their skirts hiked up and wearing old breeches underneath so in the moonlight they might pass for men. Truth be known, Roslynn had thought so too. In fact, that was the only part of this madness she had enjoyed.
They had ridden to the nearest town where the prearranged coach and driver were waiting, and had had to wait several hours to be sure they weren't followed before they actually set off on this journey. But all
the stealth and bother had been necessary to outwit Geordie Cameron. At least Gramp had made Roslynn believe it was necessary.
And Roslynn could believe it after seeing Geordie's face when Cramp's will was read. After all, Geordie was Duncan Cameron's great-nephew, his youngest brother's grandson, and his only male relative still living. Geordie had every right to assume some of Duncan's great wealth would be left to him, if only a small part. But Duncan had left his entire estate to Roslynn, his only grandchild: Cameron Hall, the mills, the countless other businesses, everything. And Geordie had been hard put not to fly into a rage.
"He shouldna have been sae surprised," Nettie had said after Geordie left the day of the reading. "He knew Duncan hated him, that he blamed him fer yer dear mother's death. Why, 'tis why he was courting ye sae diligently all these years. He knew Duncan'd leave it all tae ye. And 'tis why we've nae time tae lose, now Duncan's gone."
No, there was no time to lose. Roslynn knew it when Geordie once more asked her to marry him after the will was read, and she once more refused. She and Nettie had left that very night, with no time to grieve, no time to regret the promise she had made to her grandfather. But she had done her grieving in the last two months, when they had known Duncan's time was finally up. And it had been a blessing in fact, his death, for he had been wasting away these last seven years and suffering with the pain, and it was only his Scot's stubbornness that had let him linger this long. No, she couldn't be sorry Gramp's suffering was finally over. But oh, how she would miss that dear old man who had been both mother and father to her all these years.
"Ye'll no' grieve fer me, lassie," he'd told her weeks before he died. "I forbid it. Ye've given me too many years, too many wasted years, and I'll no' have ye giving even one day more once I'm gone. Ye'll promise me that too."
One more promise to the old man she loved, the man who had raised her and bullied her and loved her ever since his daughter had returned to him tugging along a six-year-old Roslynn in her wake. What did one more promise matter when she'd already given him the fateful one that had her in such trepidation now? And then there had been no time for grieving anyway, so she had at least fulfilled that promise.
Nettie scowled as she watched Roslynn turn her eyes back to the window and knew she was thinking of Duncan Cameron again. "Gramp" she had disrespectfully called him from the day her mother had first brought her to Cameron Hall to stay, and that just to get his goat. How the little imp had loved nettling the fierce old Scot, and how he had delighted in every bit of teasing and mischief she served him. They would both miss him, but there were too many other things to think of now.
"We're coming tae the inn finally," Nettie observed from her seat facing the front of the coach.
Roslynn leaned forward and turned to the side to see out the window in the same direction, and the setting sun caught her full in the face, touching her hair and making it appear like a sunset itself. Pretty hair, the lass had, red-gold like Janet's, her mother. Nettie's own hair was black as coal, and her eyes were the dull green of a loch shadowed by tall oaks. Roslynn had Janet's eyes too, that greenish-gray color that was saved from being nondescript by the golden flecks that were so brightly noticeable. Come to that, everything about her was a lot like Janet Cameron before she had gone away with her Englishman. In fact, there was nothing at all of Roslynn's father in her, that selfsame Englishman who had stolen Janet's heart and turned her into a shadow of herself after the tragic accident that killed him.
Perhaps it was just as well Janet had died a year afterward, for she had never been the same. And Roslynn, thank God, had her grandfather to lean on then. A seven-year-old child, with both parents gone, was fortunately adaptable, especially with an old Scot to dote on her every whim.
Och, I'm as bad as the lass, tae be thinking about the dead when 'tis the future that's sae in doubt.
"Let's hope the beds are at least softer than last night," Roslynn commented as the coach stopped before the country inn. "That is theonlything that has me eager to get to London. I know Frances will have comfortable beds waiting for us."
"Ye mean ye'll no' be glad tae see yer best friend after all these years?''
Roslynn glanced at Nettie with surprise. "Well, of course, there's that. Of course there is. I can't wait to see her again. But the circumstances won't allow a pleasant reunion, will they? I mean, with no time to lose, how much actual visiting will I get to have with Frances? Oh, drat Geordie anyway," she added with a scowl that drew her titian brows closer together. "If it weren't for him—"
"Ye wouldna have made nae promises, and we wouldna be here now, and it does nae good tae be bewailing it, now, does it?" Nettie retorted.
Roslynn grinned. "Who was bewailing what last night when she lay in a hard bed that wasn't fit for bedbugs, let alone a tired body?"
Nettie snorted, refusing to answer that reminder, and shooed Roslynn out of the coach as soon as the driver opened the door and held up his hand for her. Roslynn's chuckle carried back to her abigail as she walked ahead, still thinking about it, and Nettie snorted again, this time to herself.
Ye're no' sae auld that ye canna stand a few nights' discomfort, Nettie, lass, she thought, watching Roslynn's bouncy step that in fact made her feel twice her age at the moment.The bed can be made of stone and ye'll no' say one word tonight, or ye'll never hear the end of it from the wee lassie.
But then Nettie grinned, shaking her head. A bit of teasing was just what Roslynn needed to be doing to get her mind off the future.That bed can be soft as clown, but ye better say 'tis full of rocks, lass. 'Tis been too long since ye've heard her laugh and seen the mischief in her eyes. She needs tae tease, that she does.
As Roslynn approached the inn, she barely noticed the sixteen-year-old lad standing on a stool lighting the lamp above the door, but he unfortunately noticed her. Hearing the husky chuckle that was so different from any sound of humor he'd ever heard before, he glanced over his shoulder, then nearly fell off the stool, he was so boggled by the sight of her. Lit up like a flame, she was, in the reddish glow of the setting sun that streaked across the yard, and getting closer by the second, until he could make out every feature of her heart-shaped face, from the finely molded cheekbones and small tapered nose to the firm little chin and generous, full lips. And then she passed through the door, and his head craned around it to follow her inside, until a sharphumphsnapped his head back around and he stared at the stern-faced abigail looking up at him, his cheeks flushing hotly.
But Nettie took pity on the lad and didn't dress him down as she usually did anyone caught gawking at her Roslynn. It happened wherever they went, for Lady Roslynn Chadwick had that effect on the male species, and no age seemed to be immune, from small tykes to old men, and everything in breeches in between. And this was the lass to be turned loose on London.
"Andyou wondered who his tailor is?" the Honorable William Fairfax snickered aside to his young friend.
"Told you his tailor had nothing to do with it, didn't I? You want to turn yourself out in a reasonable facsimile, best take up the gloves. He's been at it for more'n a dozen years, so I hear."
William's young friend, Cully, flinched at the sound of leather connecting with solid flesh again, but squinted his eyes open this time. He had closed them tight a few minutes ago when the first dribble of blood had appeared from an abused nose. He shuddered now, for that same abused nose was gushing blood, and so was the swollen mouth below it, and so was a split brow above it.
"No taste for it, Cully?" William grinned, eyeing his friend's green pallor. "Imagine his partner don't either, not today leastways." He chuckled here, thinking that funny. "Now if Knighton would just climb in the ring with him, we might have something to wager on. He trained him, you know. 'Course, Knighton ain't come out ahead in the last ten years, so I hear, though he does give the lord a better showing. But then Malory's winded now, so that'd even the odds some."
But as they watched along with a few dozen other gentlemen surrounding the boxing ring, Sir Anthony Malory relaxed his stance and turned to glower at the owner of the sporting hall. "Blister it, Knighton, I told you he wasn't ready yet. He hasn't healed from the last time."
John Knighton shrugged, though there was a definite spark of humor in his dark eyes as he gazed back at the disgusted pugilist he considered a friend. "I didn't hear any other takers, my lord, did you? Maybe if you let someone else win for a change, you'd find more partners to choose from for your exercise."
There were a good many chuckles over that remark. Everyone there knew it had been a decade since Malory had lost a match or let anyone get the better of him even in a few rounds of sparring. He was in superb condition, muscles honed to perfection, but it was his skill in the ring that made him so remarkable—and unchallenged. The promoters, Knighton among them, would give their eyeteeth to get him in the ring for a professional fight. But to a rakehell like Malory, boxing was no more than a means of exercise to keep him fit and counteract the life of dissipation he enjoyed. His thrice-weekly visits to Knighton's Hall were treated in the same vein as his morning rides in the park, simply for his own pleasure.
Half the gentlemen there were pugilists as well, awaiting their turn to exercise in the ring. Some, like the Honorable Fairfax, just dropped by to watch the experts work out, though occasionally there was the opportunity to do a little gambling if any serious challenges were issued. A few others who were present were Malory's cronies; they frequently showed up to watch him demolish the sparring partners Knighton had the misfortune to provide, being wise enough themselves never to get in the ring with him.
One of them ribbed Anthony now. Nearly of the same height, but more on the lean side, Lord Amherst was a devil-may-care fellow whose gray eyes were more often than not crinkled with humor. The same age, but fair where Anthony was dark, he often shared the same interests, mainly women, gambling, and women.