The Highlander’s Princess Bride

The Highlander’s Princess Bride

The Improper Princesses Book Three
Kensington Books
November 2017

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In Vanessa Kelly’s enchanting series, three young women descended from royalty overcome their scandalous beginnings to win the hearts of the ton’s most eligible men . . .

The illegitimate daughter of the Prince Regent might be expected to pursue various dubious professions. Actress, perhaps, or artist’s model. Even courtesan. Victoria Knight, however, has become a governess—a respectable choice, until she travels to Scotland to meet her new charges. The younger brothers of Nicholas Kendrick, Earl of Arnprior, aren’t children at all. They’re brawny, wild Highland men. As for the Earl, he’s handsome, guarded, and far too compelling . . . especially for a woman hiding a dark secret.

Nick needs a proper teacher to transform his unmarriageable brothers—and a sensible, straight-laced wife for himself. Miss Knight seems to fit the bill on both counts. But he soon discovers there is more to Victoria than he thought. It’s not just her notorious origins, or the danger that’s followed her all the way to Scotland. It’s the fiery loyalty beneath that sedate façade. This, the real Victoria, is the woman Nick is starting to desire so desperately. And what an earl wants, he’ll use every seductive means to get . . .

A Barnes & Noble Top 50 Bestseller

#1 Amazon Bestseller in Regency Historical Romance

Aspen Gold Contest finalist

Historical Winner Medallion

“The latest book in the Improper Princesses series promises another wonderful romance sparkling with humor, passion, touching emotions and a cast of characters readers will cherish. Kelly is in top form as her band of Kendrick brothers charm with their antics and loyalty, presenting just the kind of Highland heroes we adore. This enchanting read will have you cheering for more.” ~RT Book Reviews, 4 Stars

“A thoroughly satisfying Regency romance…Kelly has infused this perfectly paced, detailed sequel with several juicy secrets, a lot of riffraff, and some danger, making it a well-balanced addition to the series.” ~Publishers Weekly

“There’s something about a guy with an accent that makes him swoon worthy.  Add in the brooding attitude, scandalous behavior and a wildfire in the making and you get a hotblooded romance that wickedly entertains.” ~5 stars, I Love Romance

“I enjoyed this book immensely. I love the originality and intelligence that makes Vanessa’s stories a must read…highly recommend this book and cannot wait for the next one in the series.” ~The Reading Wench

“There was never a single moment in THE HIGHLANDER’S PRINCESS BRIDE where I was not totally immersed in the happenings of this outstanding story…I never wanted this story to end because of how much I enjoyed every aspect.” ~5 stars,

“A great addition to a really great series.” ~5 stars, Romance Book Review For You

“Ms. Kelly is one of my favorite historical romance authors and this book does not disappoint…my favorite book of the series.” ~5 stars, Two Ends of the Pen

“The angst and drama are well balanced with moments of laughter and love. As a reader, I want to be invested in the lives of characters and feel their emotions. I want to be able to imagine myself in the various settings and at the end be sad to let them go. It is a rare talent to achieve this but Ms Kelly’s writing surpasses those in her field.” ~Wonderfully Weird Book Reviews

“Vanessa Kelly continues to get better and better with each book she writes. If you enjoy humor, heart, adventure, and romance set within a family of Highlander brothers in need of taming, I highly recommend The Highlander’s Princess Bride.” ~The Romance Dish

“This was a great story; it is well written and flows wonderfully. The story is chock full of emotion and humor, as well as steamy loves scenes and tense life or death moments. This story takes off at a gallop and doesn’t slow down until the very last page.” ~5 stars, Flippin’ Pages Book Reviews

“This couple has some incredible dialogue that had me giggling, shaking my head, agreeing, and fuming at the turn of each page. The concept of inappropriate princesses through no fault of their own is just fun.” ~4 stars, Books a Plenty Reviews

“I absolutely loved this book…a very strong historical romance.” ~5 stars, The Reading Cafe

“Ms. Kelly has delivered an exceptional must read in this book where the chemistry between this couple was powerful; the romance wonderful…and the ending had me cheering for this couple’s happy ever after.” 5 star Recommended Read, Book Magic. 

My Fair PrincessThree Weeks With a PrincessThe Highlander’s Princess Bride


November, 1816

“I never meant to kill him. Not for the most part.” Victoria Knight hesitated, because honestly compelled her to make the hideous admission. “For just a second, I probably did wish him dead,” she added.

When Sir Dominic Hunter and Aden St. George exchanged knowing glances, Victoria grimaced. “I know that makes me awful person. I wouldn’t blame you for marching me straight to Newgate and washing your hands of my very existence.”

Chloe, Lady Hunter, patted Victoria’s hand. “Nonsense. Fletcher was obviously a villain of the first order. No sensible person could blame you for defending yourself.”

Victoria and Chloe sat on the silk chaise in the back drawing room of the Hunters’ London townhouse. The late afternoon sun filtered through the sash windows, casting a soft glow on the cream and rose-colored carpet and the elegantly papered yellow walls. An elaborate silver tea service sat on the low table in front of the chaise, but the generous plates of little sandwiches and iced teacakes were mostly untouched. Apparently, Victoria wasn’t the only person in the room lacking appetite.

“I do blame myself,” she said gloomily. “If I’d thought about it, I’m sure I could have found a better way to manage the situation than pushing Mr. Fletcher down the stairs.”

“But you didn’t have time to think, that’s the point,” said Lady Vivien St. George. Perched opposite Victoria on the edge of a Sheridan chair that was as graceful and dainty as the lady herself, Vivien gazed at her with earnest concern. “Besides, Lord knows how many people Aden has killed over the years. It’s not like the tendency doesn’t run in the family.”

Victoria blinked, unsure how to respond to that startling declaration. Aden had served for several years under Wellington’s command in some vague capacity she had yet to understand. It apparently involved dispatching large numbers of people. As she eyed his tall, powerful frame and his austere, intimidating air of competence, she could well believe it.

“For God’s sake, Vivien,” Aden said from the wingback chair beside her. “That is hardly a helpful observation, nor is it germane to this particular situation.”

Vivien shrugged, unmoved by his scold. “I’m simply telling the truth, dearest. And, by the way, your cousins are just as bad when it comes to piling up dead bodies.”

“My goodness,” Victoria said. Those cousins were hers, too, and all illegitimate sons of royal dukes. She’d never met them and was beginning to think she preferred to keep it that way. They sounded much too exciting.

“The blackguards were all deserving of their fates,” Aden said, “as you well know.”

“As was the man who attacked Victoria,” his wife replied. Then she flashed an apologetic smile at Victoria. “Forgive me. I mean to say, Miss Knight.”

“There’s no need to apologize,” Victoria said, smiling at the charming, willowy blonde. “After all, we are…”

“Sisters-in-law?” Lady Vivien finished.

“Yes, I suppose we are,” Victoria said, feeling awkward. She’d been introduced to Lady Vivien only this morning.

Like Aden, Victoria was an illegitimate child of the Prince Regent. She’d met her half-brother for the first time last year, and had only seen him once since then. Aden’s mother was a wealthy dowager countess, whose husband had accepted her son as his own. Victoria’s mamma, however, had been the unmarried daughter of an innkeeper. While he was a fairly prosperous innkeeper to be sure, Grandpapa had spent his life waiting on members of the ton, not socializing with them. To the lords and gentlemen who’d passed under the lintel of the Royal Stag Inn, Rose Knight had been little better than a barmaid—good enough for a romp, but certainly not marriage.

Aden was a powerful man, with a position at court and a wife who was the daughter of an earl. Victoria was only a governess and an unemployed one at that. She would never presume on her relationship with the St. Georges, despite their kindness.

“Indeed we are in-laws,” Vivien said with a warm smile. Then she tilted her head. “Although we look enough alike to be sisters. I always wanted a sister.”

“That’s very kind, but no one could ever think so,” Victoria protested. “You’re so elegant.”

She winced as soon as the clumsy words had passed her lips. But they were true, since Vivien was a diamond of the first water. Victoria, on the other hand, was entirely ordinary—perfectly neat and pleasant to look at, but no more than that.

“You’re both delightful young women and, Victoria, you’re as much a member of this family as Vivien,” Dominic said. “As I’ve said on more than one occasion.”

“And look how I’ve repaid you,” she said with a sigh. “I’ve handed you quite an awful mess.”

“I’ve dealt with far worse, as has Aden. We’ll get you out of this, never fear.”

“Lady Welgate said she would see me hanged for murder.” Victoria pressed a hand to her chest at the memory of her former employer’s rage.

Chloe wrapped her in a comforting hug. “I’m sure that was simply her grief talking. Please remember that you were defending yourself from a monstrous attack.”

“I wish Mr. Fletcher’s family shared your view,” Victoria said.

Dominic went to a sideboard that held a number of crystal decanters and matching tumblers and wine glasses. “You may be sure I will be telling Mr. Fletcher’s family exactly how to think about this matter,” he said as he brought her back a half-filled tumbler.

Victoria hesitantly sipped the brandy. It made her throat burn, but she welcomed the warmth that soothed her shaken nerves.

“We haven’t wanted to press you, my dear,” Chloe said, “since you only arrived last night. But the more we know about the incident, the more we can be of assistance to you.”

Dominic and Chloe had insisted that she relax after her precipitous arrival in London. They’d had a quiet family supper and then spent an hour playing with Chloe and Dominic’s little boy. Victoria had been almost pathetically grateful for their sensitivity, welcoming the small break from the nightmare of the last few days.

“Aden and I wait can wait in my library,” Dominic said, “so you can speak freely to the ladies.”

Victoria had known Dominic since she was a little girl. He’d never been anything but kind and supportive, especially after the death of first her mother and then Grandpapa Knight a few years later.

“I have no secrets from any of you,” she said. “If my account of that horrid day can help, then I’m happy to tell you more. I promise I will not succumb to the vapors.”

“That’s the spirit,” Aden said. His easy acceptance of her was a surprise, and quite wonderful.

She returned his smile then absently rubbed the plain twill fabric of her sleeve. “I hardly know where to start.”

“Perhaps by telling us about Mr. Fletcher,” Chloe suggested. “After all, he’s the cause of this dreary state of affairs.”

Dreary hardly began to cover it. “Very well. Thomas Fletcher was Lady Welgate’s brother. I met him shortly after I took up my duties as governess to the Welgate daughters. He often visited his sister’s household.”

“I attended school with one of Lord Welgate’s sisters,” Vivien said. “I found him to be a very kind gentleman. Lady Welgate, however, is a rude, sour-tempered woman. I was surprised when Welgate married her.”

“He didn’t have much choice,” Dominic said. “Welgate’s father was a gambler and a spendthrift who all but destroyed his legacy. Serena Fletcher’s father, however, built substantial fortunes in shipping and tobacco. Her dowry saved a distinguished family from ruin.”

“No one in this family would hold Lady Welgate’s background against her,” Chloe said. “Most of us have what can only be described as mixed parentage, at best.”

“True,” replied Dominic. “But Vivien is correct in her assessment. While I have a great deal of respect for her husband, Lady Welgate is another matter entirely.”

Dominic had counseled Victoria not to take the position, but the lure of working for such a well-regarded family that could give her excellent recommendations and a good salary had been too enticing. She should have listened to him.

“Her ladyship was not the easiest person to please,” she said, “but I’d been managing it without too much trouble.”

While Lady Welgate had been something of a harridan, Victoria had grown up in a houseful of brusque, sometimes-difficult women and was versed in dealing with the type. She’d made a point of performing her tasks with alacrity, and she’d never contradicted her mistress. Fortunately, her two charges, surprisingly well-mannered girls of six and eight, had taken a shine to her.

All in all, life in the sometimes-volatile household had been perfectly satisfactory until Thomas Fletcher had slinked onto the scene.

“Clearly her brother was not as easy to manage,” Aden said.

“He was not. I made a point of never being alone with him. Unfortunately, he became…” Victoria hesitated, groping for the right word. Even now it seemed ridiculous. She was the last sort of woman for any man to pursue with such single-minded focus, especially not a roué like Thomas Fletcher.

“Obsessed with you?” Chloe said.

Victoria winced. “I suspect he saw me as something of a challenge. The more I avoided him, the more determined he became.”

In the weeks before the incident, Fletcher had all but moved into his brother-in-law’s household. It seemed that every time she rounded the corner of a quiet hallway or went to the library to fetch a book, he would be lurking about, waiting to catch her alone.

“I’m grieved you had to endure such a dreadful situation,” Vivien said, her voice tight. “Before I married Aden, I found myself in similar circumstances. One feels enraged and helpless.”

Victoria nodded. “That’s exactly how I felt.”

“But you took action even before Fletcher attacked you,” Dominic pointed out.

“Yes. When he insisted I become his mistress, I knew I could no longer manage the situation.”

Victoria shuddered, recalling the way he’d backed her against the door of her bedroom and put his hands on her. Fortunately, a maid had come along, allowing her to make her escape. “I spoke to Lord Welgate immediately, who promised to instruct Mr. Fletcher to leave me alone.”

“And yet the bounder did not obey,” Chloe said in a quietly furious tone.

“For a few days he did,” Victoria said. “In fact, he made a point of ignoring me if Lord or Lady Welgate were nearby, or if I was with the children. But it was evident he was very angry that I’d gone to his brother-in-law to complain.”

When she was out on the terrace, playing with her charges one day, she’d glanced at the library’s French doors and caught sight of Fletcher standing there. The look on his face, a horrible mix of hatred and lust, had almost stopped her heart.

And his hand was on his groin as he watched her play with his two little nieces. She could hardly imagine how any man could be so depraved, and it had frightened and infuriated her in equal measure.

“Did he threaten you?” asked Dominic.

“No, but he made his intentions clear,” she said quietly. ‘There was no misunderstanding them.”

Dominic looked grim, but nodded for her to continue.

“I decided to write to you that evening of my intention to return to my family in Brighton until I could find new employment. I was going to inform Lord Welgate of my plans as soon as he returned from his short trip to London, and then leave immediately thereafter.”

Victoria would rue that delay forever. She should have packed her bags immediately and walked back to Brighton if she’d had to. But Lord Welgate had always treated her with kindness, and she’d not wished to show him even the slightest hint of disrespect. So she’d taken the risk that Fletcher would not have the nerve to attack her in his sister’s household, with two small children sleeping just down the hall. It had been a monstrous miscalculation.

“It was stupid of me to wait,” she said with a grimace.

“You did nothing wrong, Victoria,” Aden said firmly, “so, get that out of your head right this instant.”

“Your brother is right,” said Chloe. “The fact that you were not safe in your employer’s household is a reflection only on Fletcher and his sister.”

Victoria gave them a shaky smile. Most people would think her the guilty party, either for putting herself in harm’s way or for casting out lures, as Lady Welgate had put it. Life was often precarious for female servants, even in the best of households. She supposed she’d been lucky to reach the advanced age of twenty-five before finding out for herself just how ugly things could become.

“Thank you,” she said. “In any event, that very evening, Mr. Fletcher took advantage of the fact that Lady Welgate was attending a dinner party at a neighboring estate.” She huffed out a bitter laugh. “I’d assumed he’d gone with her.”

Relieved that she’d made the decision to leave, she’d celebrated with a small glass of sherry from the bottle she kept in her room—a present from one of her uncles the previous Christmas. Victoria only ever indulged on her half-day off—one glass in the evening, as a treat.

She drew in a breath, steadying herself for the next part of the story. “It was quite late. The children were asleep in the nursery, and the staff were downstairs in the servant’s hall or gone early to bed. I’d borrowed a few books from the library, and I thought to return them while I was thinking about it. I was coming down from the nursery wing, which has a separate staircase to the first floor. Unfortunately, Mr. Fletcher was coming up that very same staircase.”

“Did he have any cause to be coming up that particular staircase?” Aden asked in a chilling voice.

“He did not. That part of the manor is reserved for the children, the two nursemaids, and me.”

“So the lout was deliberately seeking you out,” Vivien said with disgust.

Victoria would never forget the horror that had surged in her when she saw him on the landing. Although she’d carried only one candle, a full moon had shone through the large window above the staircase, illuminating the flare of lust in Fletcher’s eyes. He’d clearly been on his way to her room.

“When he saw me, he laughed,” she said. “I told him to get out of my way, and that I would scream if he came any closer.”

“Surely someone would have come to help if you had,” Chloe said, her normally serene features pulled tight with distress.

“Yes, if they’d heard. But it was mostly an empty threat, which he knew. The door at the top of the stairs was shut, and I was too far from the servant’s hall for anyone to hear a call for help.”

“If the bastard wasn’t already dead,” Aden growled, “I’d rip out his throat with my own damn hands.”

The look on her brother’s face suggested he’d have done exactly that and not lost a moment’s sleep over it. Victoria supposed it was rather awful of her, but his outrage partly dispelled the chill that had settled around her like a casket of ice since that terrible night. That Aden could do something like that wasn’t a question. That he would do it for her was nevertheless rather amazing.

Dominic crossed his legs and rested a hand on his knee. “A laudable if rather gruesome sentiment, Aden. Fortunately, it’s an unnecessary one, since Victoria ably extricated herself from a very dangerous situation.”

She choked back a spurt of nervous laughter. “That’s one way of putting it.”

“It’s the best way to put it,” Chloe said. “So, Fletcher attacked you on the stairs, and then you struggled. I hate to embarrass you, my love, but did he injure you in any way?”

Victoria pressed her eyelids shut as she flashed back to the awful interlude. “Not really. He ripped my bodice and scratched me a bit, but that was the worst of it.”

Aden breathed out a rather shocking oath as even Sir Dominic’s calm expression disappeared under a barely contained fury. Victoria was exceedingly happy that both men were on her side. It was unlikely that anyone on the receiving end of such intense fury would remain in one piece for very long.

She managed a tight smile. “Fortunately, I was able to give him a sharp elbow to the chin as he took me down to the floor. He fell to the side instead of on top of me, which enabled me to scramble to my feet. He was so furious that I resisted. At that moment I thought he actually wished to…”

She couldn’t say the words, momentarily swamped by terrifying memories that flickered through her mind. She’d been mere moments away from a brutal assault and possibly even death. It had taken every particle of strength to push back against a fear that had threatened to turn her limbs into leaden, useless appendages.

“It’s all right, dear,” Chloe said, taking her hand again. “He can never hurt you again.”

“Yes, I saw to that, didn’t I?” Victoria’s little attempt at insouciance fell horribly flat.

“You don’t have to finish if you don’t want to,” Vivien said in a warmly sympathetic voice.

Victoria mentally shook herself. The deed was done and she was safe, at least for now. There was no point in indulging in self-pity or guilt.

“No, I’m fine,” she said. “Fletcher grabbed for my legs, but I was able to step back and give him a good shove with my foot. The next thing I knew he was tumbling head-over-heels down the staircase.”

It had all happened so quickly. A few moments after she pushed him, Fletcher lay in an inert heap on the tile floor below, his head and neck at a hideously incorrect angle. Victoria had suspected instantly that he was dead, but had run down in the vain hope that he might have survived the fall. When she crouched over him and saw the fixed, lifeless look in his eyes, she’d come to the wrenching realization that she’d killed a man.

A vile one, to be sure, but still a human being, one whose life she’d ended.

“And that was it,” she awkwardly concluded. “It was over so quickly I could hardly believe it had happened.”

“You did what you needed to do, Victoria,” Aden said gently. “Never second guess yourself on that score.”

“Aden is correct,” Chloe said. “It’s a perfectly dreadful story, but we’re all grateful you were able to overcome him. Some women are not physically strong enough to defend themselves, or would have been paralyzed with fear.”

“I almost was paralyzed,” Victoria confessed. “But I had the advantage of growing up in a coaching inn, where one does learn to deal with unruly or drunken males.” Her grandfather had insisted that she learn to defend herself, and she would bless his memory every day for that lesson.

“After you ascertained that Mr. Fletcher was deceased, what did you do?” Dominic asked.

“I ran upstairs to the nursery and woke one of the nursemaids. I told her Mr. Fletcher had suffered an accident and asked her to fetch the butler and housekeeper. Then I went to my room for a shawl to tie around my bodice.” She grimaced, recalling how disheveled she’d looked. “For all the good it did me. The nursemaid made a point of relaying her impression of my appearance in the most lurid terms to anyone who would listen.”

“Did either the housekeeper or the butler set any store by the girl’s description?” Dominic asked.

“No, but others in the household were only too happy to listen.”

Lady Welgate had certainly believed the nursemaid. Her ladyship had been all too happy to listen to the girl’s version of events, one that had grown more salacious with each retelling. That particular nursemaid had never liked Victoria, accusing her more than once of putting on airs. It was a common complaint about governesses. They were often looked down upon by their employers and often resented by other servants for their somewhat privileged role in the household.

“Lady Welgate arrived home shortly afterwards, did she not?” prompted Dominic. “And Lord Welgate also returned from London that evening as well?”

Victoria nodded. “Both came home to a total uproar, I’m afraid. Two of the footmen were carrying the body upstairs to an empty bedroom when her ladyship arrived. She immediately fell into hysterics.”

By that time Victoria had managed to change her dress and brush her hair after giving the butler and the housekeeper a quick recitation of events. Mercifully, they’d believed her. The senior staff had disliked Mr. Fletcher, although they would never have openly expressed such an opinion. When it came to running the household, Lady Welgate ruled the roost, and she’d been devoted to her brother. Complaining about his unfortunate proclivities would have only resulted in finding oneself out of a job without references.

“You told me, however, that Lord Welgate kept his head,” Dominic said.

“Yes. He convinced his wife to lie down in her room, then he sent for the magistrate. Lord Welgate made it clear to him that Mr. Fletcher had importuned me in the past, and that he did not consider me at fault in the accident.”

Chloe let out a relieved sigh. “I shudder to think what might have happened without Lord Welgate’s support.”

“I owe him a great debt of gratitude,” Victoria said. “Initially, the magistrate was not inclined in my favor, since Lady Welgate was so insistent that her brother’s death was a deliberate act on my part.”

“How did she arrive at such a ridiculous conclusion?” Aden asked.

Victoria glanced down at her folded hands, a mortified heat rising in her cheeks. “She accused me of trying to seduce her brother in the hopes of luring him into marriage. According to her, when he refused me, I murdered him out of spite.”

“That is insane,” Vivien exclaimed. “Why would she invent such a tale?”

“Lady Welgate was several years older than her brother,” Victoria said. “Their mother died when Mr. Fletcher was quite young, and her ladyship all but raised him. She was devoted to him and devastated by his loss.”

“Her grief is understandable,” Chloe said in a clipped voice. “But that’s no reason to accuse you of murder, against all evidence.”

“It could have been worse,” Dominic said. “Despite his wife’s accusations, Lord Welgate allowed Victoria to send me an express, asking for assistance. That was quick thinking, my dear,” he added, giving Victoria a warm smile.

“I didn’t know to whom else to turn,” she confessed. “My family wouldn’t have any idea how to help me in a situation like this.”

Actually, they would be mortified by her predicament. Her mother’s family held a degree of affection for her, especially Aunt Rebecca, who’d essentially raised her. But they also found her existence rather an embarrassment, and would not welcome being pulled into the middle of a scandal.

“I was happy to help,” Dominic said.

Thankfully, he’d arrived at Welgate Manor less than a day after the incident. Dominic and Lord Welgate had disappeared into the study, along with the local magistrate and the surgeon. They emerged with the agreement that Fletcher had been the victim of an unfortunate fall, and that Victoria was free to leave with Dominic. Lady Welgate’s shrieks of rage had all but rattled the windows, but Lord Welgate had stood firm. It was clear he wished to avoid the scandal resulting from a public inquest that would expose his brother-in-law’s sordid behavior.

“Then everything’s all cleared up,” Vivien said with a relieved sigh. “Splendid.”

“Not entirely, according to the letter I received from Lord Welgate this morning,” Dominic said.

“Fletcher’s father arrived at Welgate Manor last night, and apparently he’s very unhappy with the magistrate’s decision,” Victoria said, trying to sound calmer than she felt. “He and his daughter believe I should be arrested for murder.”

Aden scowled. “Well, that’s not going to happen.”

She smoothed her palms over her skirt to mask the trembling of her hands. “It’s difficult not to worry, though.”

“And I will repeat what I told you this morning, Victoria,” Dominic said. “Leave Mr. Fletcher to me. The only thing you need think about is what you want to do next.”

Victoria had been pondering that question a great deal when she wasn’t envisioning a trip to the gallows. “I must find another position, although obviously I cannot depend on any references from Lord or Lady Welgate.”

She’d been counting on another few years of employment to support her plan to establish her own school for girls. Her dream of independence had just receded farther into the distance.

“Are you sure you wish to return so quickly to work?” Chloe asked. “We’d be delighted if you stayed for a nice long visit.”

Victoria was tempted. Chloe’s serene, comfortable household could be the perfect refuge from her troubles. It had always surprised her how quietly she and Dominic lived, with very little ostentation. Most of the nobility enjoyed flaunting their wealth and extravagant lifestyles. Such was not the case with Sir Dominic Hunter even though he was a powerful magistrate who had the ear of the Prince Regent.

The Prince Regent.

She’d never met her father and he’d never shown the slightest interest in knowing his daughter. Nor would he, of that she was quite certain. After all, Mamma had been nothing but a glorified barmaid. Victoria had long ago realized the folly of indulging in the belief that she had any place among the privileged classes, other than as a servant.

“Thank you for your kind offer,” she said, “but I should find another position as quickly as possible. The sooner I can put this terrible incident behind me, the better.”

Chloe wrinkled her nose. “Are you sure? There’s no need to rush.”

“Absolutely not,” interjected Vivien. “You could visit with us, too. What you need is rest and a little pampering from your family.”

“You are all incredibly kind,” Victoria said, “but you mustn’t think I’m unhappy with the idea of seeking another position. I love teaching. My greatest fear resulting from this horrible episode is that I won’t—”

Her throat suddenly went tight. Teaching was the one thing that truly gave her a sense of purpose, challenging both mind and heart. There was nothing more satisfying than the look of joy on a little girl’s face when she read a fairy tale or nursery rhyme all by herself for the first time. It was like having the opportunity to discover the world anew through fresh eyes every day.

Chloe picked up the half-empty glass of brandy from the low table and handed it to Victoria. “That will never happen, my dear,” she said. “Dominic and your brother will not allow it.”

“Certainly not,” said Dominic. “But I would like to get Victoria away from London as quickly as possible.”

Aden nodded. “Out of sight, out of mind is the best way to quell the gossip that might result from this situation.”

Like them, Victoria knew that even the slightest hint of scandal would be a deathblow to her dreams of opening a school. Her sterling reputation was her most precious asset. If she lost that, she lost the future. Given that she was illegitimate, even with royal blood, she was already fighting with one hand tied behind her back. If Fletcher’s death were to haunt her, she was finished.

“Then where will I go?” she asked. “Unless you have knowledge of an available position, Sir Dominic, I will have to advertise.”

“Surely that won’t be necessary,” Vivien protested. “The last thing you need is to be pitched into another uncertain situation with a family that cannot be trusted.”

Dominic studied Victoria with an intensity she found slightly odd. It was as if she were a vexing mathematical equation he was trying to solve.

“As a matter of fact,” he said, “I do know of a family in need of a governess, and I think you will fit the bill. Tell me, my dear, how would you feel about spending the winter in Scotland?”


When a bounce jolted Victoria out of a fitful doze, she barely managed not to topple off the heavily padded seat. If Captain Alec Gilbride’s luxurious carriage survived the beating from the rough road without breaking an axle or wheel, it would be miraculous. Since getting stranded in the remote Scottish countryside held no appeal, she hoped for that miracle.

His brawny frame barely moving despite the jostling, Alec flashed her a rueful grin. “Sorry, lass. I was hoping you’d be able to catch a bit more sleep before we arrived at Castle Kinglas. But that bump almost knocked my teeth out, too.

Victoria swallowed a yawn before securing her bonnet more firmly on her head. It seemed like years since she’d gotten a decent night’s sleep. But there was little point in complaining, particularly since Alec and his family had fussed over her in the nicest way possible. It was no one’s fault but her own that guilt and anxiety continued to plague even her dreams.

“I’m fine. Truly,” she said.

She brushed aside the curtain. The views had grown increasingly wild on their trip north, with craggy mountain peaks looming on the horizon and rough, scrub-covered hills rising around the isolated road. “I just dozed off for a bit, which is a shame. I’m missing all the best scenery, I’m sure.”

“The area around Loch Long is certainly dramatic. And I do hope you’re suitably impressed, Miss Knight, especially with our fine Scottish roads,” he said with a wink.

She gave him a reluctant smile. “I’m sure I’ll find the views impressive once my brain stops rattling around in my skull.”

They’d set out early this morning from Captain Gilbride’s manor house just outside Glasgow. Within a few hours, they’d left the civilized Lowlands of Scotland behind and approached the first range of mountains that signaled the entrance to the Highlands. Ever since they passed through the village of Arrochar and left the well-traveled main road, conditions had worsened, rattling her bones as well as her brains. Victoria was tempted to walk the rest of the way to Kinglas, despite the cold.

“We’ll be there soon enough, Miss Knight,” Alec said. “And then you can have a nice cup of tea and a rest.”

“I look forward to that more than you can imagine. And please call me Victoria. I feel certain we’ve achieved a degree of informality—not to say a camaraderie born of hardship.”

Alec laughed. “True enough. It’s been years since I traveled in these parts. Many people go by boat when journeying up the west coast, or farther north. You can certainly see why. I think I lost a tooth when we hit that last rut.”

“It was so kind of you, but you truly didn’t need to play escort. I’m perfectly capable of traveling by myself, as I told Sir Dominic. I feel terrible that you had to meet me in Glasgow, much less travel all this way to introduce me to the Earl of Arnprior.”

Victoria feared she’d made a dreadful mistake when she left London, now more than a week ago. Aside from the constant cold, the long days on the road, and her perpetually damp boots, she couldn’t shake the growing sensation that she was running away. Disappearing so suddenly couldn’t help but reflect poorly on her—as if she had done something wrong. To outsiders, it would appear she was fleeing the scene of the crime.

If her reputation was her greatest asset, why wasn’t she standing her ground and telling the truth to whoever would listen?

She reminded herself again that Dominic and Aden had insisted they could manage the situation more effectively without her, and that her only task was to maintain a steadfast silence about the incident. The quickest way to snuff out gossip, Dominic had reiterated, was to deny it fuel in the first place. Still, her instincts were telling her that a happy resolution to the situation wouldn’t be quick or easy. Whenever she was tempted to think so, she had only to recall Lady Welgate’s shrieking demands to have her charged with murder.

Alec braced one booted foot against the rise of the opposite bench as the carriage drove through a series of bumps. “I’m happy to escort you, Victoria. And if you think this weather is bad, I’m afraid you’re in for something of a shock come January.”

She wrinkled her nose. “That sounds rather alarming.”

He waggled his brows. “We’ll toughen ye up soon enough, Sassenach, I promise ye. After a nice dram of whisky and some good flannel, all will be right in tha’ world.”

She couldn’t help chuckling at his exaggerated brogue. Alec Gilbride, despite his formidable appearance, was no rough Highlander. He’d been a captain in Wellington’s army and was heir to a Scottish earldom. An intelligent man who spoke at least four languages fluently, he was also her cousin, though she’d known nothing of his existence until shortly before she departed London.

She was collecting new relatives at a rather precipitous rate.

It had been awkward when she first arrived in Glasgow, but Alec hadn’t blinked an eyelash after she haltingly explained her situation. Dominic had sent an express to him outlining her dilemma, thus sparing any need to go into uncomfortable details. To her relief, Alec had patted her hand and said Fletcher was lucky to die with so little fuss. If Aden or Dominic had gotten their hands on him, Alec had said, things would have been much worse for the rotter.

Alec’s sanguine attitude was another interesting—if rather alarming—insight into her larger-than-life royal relations. That she was out of their league, both in temperament and station, was entirely evident.

Still, they’d all welcomed her with open arms.

“You’ve all been so generous to me,” she burst out, feeling the need to thank him once again. “I truly don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it.”

Alec gave her a quizzical smile. “You don’t have to do anything, lass. You’re family.”

“But you barely know me, and yet here you are, leaving your wife and family to go on a wild goose chase with me.”

“Oh, I have a habit of getting on my poor wife’s nerves. She’s delighted to get rid of me for a few days.”

Victoria eyed his sincere expression, but noted the twinkle lurking in his gray gaze. Her cousin was not only a very handsome man; he was both kind and charming. She found it hard to imagine that any woman in her right mind would find him irritating.

“Is that really true?” she asked.

“That I sometimes irritate Edie? Absolutely. That she wants to get rid of me?” The satisfied smile that curved the edges of his mouth conveyed the opposite. Like Aden, Victoria suspected that Alec had a very happy marriage.

If not for the fact that her goals did not include the wedded state, she might be a tad jealous that her brother and cousin had both secured the sort of family life a woman like her could only dream about. Illegitimacy was never an easy obstacle to overcome regardless of one’s sex, and it was doubly hard for women. Like mother, like daughter, was the standard way of thinking. Tainted from an early age, a girl was likely to follow in those sinful footsteps, rendering her unfit for marriage to a respectable man.

Thomas Fletcher had certainly thought so.

“I’m sure your wife hates that you have to play nursemaid to me, but I’m grateful for your escort.” Her comment was punctuated with yet another bounce through a dreadful rut, sending a rigorous jolt up her spine.

“The ride will smooth out as we get closer to Kinglas,” Alec said. “The earl has been working hard to improve the roads on estate lands, after his long time away. And you’re not to worry about me one bit. Since I know Arnprior, it makes perfect sense that I facilitate the introductions. Can’t be easy for you to land on a stranger’s doorstep, asking for a job—even if it’s the doorstep to a castle.”

His jesting words pricked her anxiety about her new assignment and her mysterious employer.

“Is the earl not a particularly welcoming person?” she asked cautiously. “I know so little about him, or what he expects from me. Dominic didn’t tell me much.” It had struck her as rather odd, but it had been such a rush to get her on the road that there hadn’t been time for a full discussion.

Being cooped up with her thoughts for the last week, without her music or work to distract her, had been more of a challenge than she’d anticipated. Playing the pianoforte, in particular, had always been an escape and comfort for her, one she’d been denied for almost two weeks. Victoria swore her fingers were starting to itch with the need to play, and even the oldest, most out-of-tune instrument would suffice at this point.

Alec’s genial expression remained unchanged in response to her query, but she had the impression he’d come to alert.

“Arnprior’s a capital fellow,” he said, “so no need to worry about that. But what exactly did Dominic tell you about him and your new position?”

“I know Lord Arnprior served in the army for several years and was away from home for most of that time. He has five half-brothers who are quite a bit younger than he is. The youngest one needs a teacher who can provide instruction in both music and deportment.” She frowned. “I do find it rather odd that the earl would wish to employ a governess rather than a tutor. Wouldn’t a male teacher be more appropriate for the boy? And I don’t believe his brothers are still in the schoolroom, are they?”

Alec frowned down at his gloved hands, which rested loosely on his thighs. “From what I remember, Arnprior’s half-brothers range in age from fifteen to twenty-five. I served with Royal Kendrick, the oldest. He’s a good man, like the earl, if a bit rough around the edges. Royal will not be looking for any schooling in deportment, although he could certainly use it,” he finished after a short pause.

“Oh, dear, is Mr. Kendrick an unpolished sort of person?”

Alec shook his head. “No, just gruff.”

When she eyed him dubiously, Alec shrugged. “Well, very gruff, if you must know, although he wasn’t always that way. He suffered a severe wound at the Battle of Waterloo and has not had an easy recovery. According to Arnprior, the poor lad has a tendency to fall into black moods.”

“Ah, what exactly did he mean by ‘black moods’?” she asked, trying not to sound rattled.

Alec’s brow cleared and he gave her a reassuring smile. “He’s not dicked in the nob or bad-tempered, if that’s what you’re worrying about. Royal is as good a man as you’d ever want to find. It’s simply that the war turned him a bit gloomy and grim. He wouldn’t be the first to have that happen. I’m sure he’ll recover soon enough, since returning home to the Highlands will do him a world of good.”

Alec almost sounded as if he was trying to convince himself as much as her. Thankfully, she wouldn’t have to worry about Royal Kendrick. He was obviously a man of the world and certainly not in need of a governess.

“And what about the others?” she asked.

Her cousin went back to wrinkling his brow. “The twins are in their early twenties. They were too young for a commission when Lord Arnprior and Royal joined the Black Watch. The earl wouldn’t have allowed it in any case. He didn’t even want Royal to join, but the lad was old enough to know his own mind. The twins, however, were little hellions, without the maturity to manage life in the military.”

“And do these hellions have names?”

“I’ll be confounded if I can remember them,” Alec said cheerfully. “I told Arnprior there were simply too many Kendricks running around the Highlands, stirring up trouble. I can’t keep them all straight.”

“And what did his lordship say to that?” What in heaven’s name was she walking into?

“He agreed with me. But, again, I’m sure the twins are splendid lads when it comes right down to it. No doubt Arnprior keeps them under control.”

“Thank God I won’t be teaching them, either,” she said. “I assume they’ve already been to university and are no longer in need of instruction.”

Alec’s gaze went to the window. They’d just entered a large stand of tall conifers with dark, feathered branches brushing against the bare limbs of leafless oaks. Her cousin studied the view with the concentration of a botanist.

“I think that’s true,” he said. “Can’t be totally sure, though.”

Victoria let go of the carriage strap, finally able to plant her feet firmly on the carriage floor because they’d hit a smoother stretch of road. It must signal they were nearing their destination.

“They must have had tutors,” she said. “Surely Lord Arnprior would not expect me to take on the teaching of two young men of that age?”

Alec’s gaze swung back. “I’m sure you’re right. That would be ridiculous.”

She eyed him for a few more seconds before letting it go. No one in their right mind would ask a governess to tutor adult males. “Alec, do you know anything about my assignment? Sir Dominic was so vague about the details.”

He shrugged. “That’s Dominic for you. Loves to keep us in the dark. Actually, I believe young Kade will be your primary responsibility. He’s only fifteen. Arnprior had the lad in school, but he struggled, from what I understand.”

She repressed a sigh. This assignment, far from helping reestablish her reputation as an educator, sounded like it could be a disaster in the making. “Kade is not academically inclined?”

“Quite the opposite. According to Arnprior, he enjoys his studies and is a gifted musician. One of the reasons Dominic recommended you was your reputation as an excellent music teacher.”

Her tension unspooled a bit. This, at least, was familiar ground. “That makes sense, I suppose. But I can’t help wondering why the boy struggled at school.”

“He’s sickly,” said Alec in a somber tone. “Almost died from a lung infection a few months back. That put a proper scare into Arnprior, so he decided to bring him home and find a teacher who could work with Kade on his music.”

“Poor boy,” Victoria said. “Now I understand why his lordship would wish to hire someone like me.”

Under the circumstances, a fragile, sensitive boy might be more comfortable with a female teacher because she would treat him more gently than the average male tutor. And since music was one of her specialties, it seemed a logical fit.

“But that makes only four brothers,” she said, wishing to get the entire family sorted out. “Who am I missing?”

“That would be . . . Braden. Yes, that’s the lad’s name,” Alec said. “He’s not yet twenty. He attends the University of Glasgow. An exceedingly bright lad who wants to be a physician, from what Arnprior told me.”

“So, my only pupil will be Master Kade?” Even Dominic’s vague description had intimated that she’d have more than one. Something wasn’t adding up.

“It does sound like that,” Alec said in a cheery tone. “By the by, Dominic says you’ll be setting up your own school once you get this Kendrick lot sorted out. I have no doubt you’ll do a bang-up job of it, too.”

Victoria crossed her arms and gave him a level stare. “You can’t distract me with flattery, you know. You’re being only slightly more helpful than Sir Dominic—which is to say, not very helpful at all. Is there something you’re not telling me?”

Alec’s eyes rounded in a credible pretense of innocence. “Haven’t a clue, lass. I’m just telling you what I know. It’s not like Dominic takes me into his confidence.”

She allowed her expression to convey her rank skepticism. When he responded with a bland smile, Victoria shook her head with disgust. “You are not fooling me for an instant, Alasdair Gilbride. It’s immensely irritating that you won’t come clean. I’ve a mind to box your ears.”

Under normal circumstances, she wouldn’t dream of speaking so bluntly. But she was tired, cold, and heartily sick of spending day after day cooped up in a carriage. If she were a better person, she would apologize. Victoria was beginning to discover, however, that she was not quite the person she’d always imagined herself to be. It astonished her how the act of killing a man altered one’s vision of oneself.

Alec didn’t seem the least bit put out by her flash of temper. “You sound exactly like my old village schoolmistress. She was a tartar, that one. Scared the wits out of me.”

“I’m sure I don’t scare you in the least. And you are fibbing, aren’t you?”

He held up his hands to signal surrender. “I’m mostly in the dark too. I do know that Arnprior needs a governess for Kade and possibly a little help with the twins. Just in maintaining a good example in the household,” he added hastily. “There hasn’t been a lady in residence at Castle Kinglas in years, and I think Nick believes that having an educated, genteel female around the place will provide a good example for everyone.”

“Lovely—a houseful of ill-mannered Highlanders, ones I’m expected to tame by virtue of my saintly presence. I can only hope Lord Arnprior fails to discover that my previous employer accused me of murder.”

Alec pressed her gloved hand. “You’ll be fine. And I promise I will not leave Kinglas until I’m certain everything is to your satisfaction. No tossing you onto the front steps of the castle and heading pell-mell back to Glasgow, I swear.”

She gave him a reluctant smile. “I would certainly hate to have to chase after you for my bags.”

His expression grew serious. “You’ll make a splendid impression on everyone, Victoria. But I will repeat Dominic’s advice that you’re not to discuss the events of the last few weeks with anyone. Not even Lord Arnprior.”

“It wasn’t really advice,” she said dryly. “More like an order.”

“I can well imagine. But Dominic is wiser than any of us, so it’s best to do as he says.”

She couldn’t help wondering if the rest of her life would be premised on a lie. It wasn’t a very appetizing prospect. “I promise.”

He gave her an approving smile. “Good. Then there’s no need to speak about Fletcher or any of that dreary business again.”

His tone signaled that the discussion was over. Alec was a genial, easy-tempered man, but Victoria was beginning to think that, in his own way, he could be just as bossy and overprotective as Dominic and Aden. Since she was used to making her own decisions, she didn’t know whether to be touched by that or annoyed.

“And now,” he said, brushing aside the half curtain from the coach window, “We’re almost there. You might want to snag a look.”

She followed his pointing finger. As the carriage emerged from the woods, the sun broke free of the towering gray clouds that had shadowed most of the journey. The starkly angled light illuminated a dramatic landscape of craggy outcroppings and steep-sided hills covered with fiery autumn foliage rising to the jagged, snow-dusted peaks. She blinked, momentarily disoriented by the blaze of color. It was beautiful but strangely unnerving, as if the landscape had gone up in flames.

“It’s quite something, isn’t it?” Alec murmured as he stared at the vista. “By the time I returned from the war, I’d almost forgotten how amazing the Highlands are. I felt like I was waking up after a long sleep.”

“Yes, it’s lovely,” she said politely. It was also rather . . . portentous was the word that came to mind, along with remote and wild. She’d spent most of her life just outside of Brighton, in a comfortable, bustling village that was none of those things.

“We should be able to see Castle Kinglas after we round this bend.” He pointed again. “We’re coming up almost parallel to the loch. Kinglas is at the base of the glen, right on the water.”

The carriage jostled through the curve, then straightened out and ran smoothly along a surprisingly well-maintained road. As if sensing the end of their journey, the horses picked up the pace.

Victoria craned a bit and she saw it. “Goodness. That’s quite like . . .”

“Something out of a fairy tale?” Alec said with a grin.

“I suppose so,” she said with a ghost of a laugh.

But Kinglas was not like the ones portrayed in the happier tales, where the handsome prince swept his bride off to a lovely white confection with elegant spires and rose-laden bowers. No, this particular castle, while imposing, was grim and gothic, with smoky-colored stone and a tall tower house surrounded by guard walls and battlements. It was no home for a fairy-tale princess or happy endings, of that she felt sure.

Then it’s a good thing you’re not really a princess, isn’t it?

Victoria couldn’t hold back a wry smile at the thought. It was fine with her. As long as the rooms weren’t too damp or the chimneys didn’t smoke, she would be satisfied.

“It’s not exactly Sleeping Beauty’s bower,” Alec said, echoing her thoughts, “but it’s comfortable enough. Things were rather neglected while Arnprior was away during the war, but he’s working to correct that. He’s a terrifyingly efficient man, so you’ll not be living in a groaning old pile of stones.”

“That’s good to know,” she said, smiling.

A few minutes later, they were bowling through a set of scrolled iron gates and past a neat-looking gatehouse. The horses trotted up a graveled drive lined by tall conifers and bordered by open lawn. There were no ornamental gardens as far as she could tell. The lawns ran in broad sweeps around the castle and down to the loch, its whitecaps glinting in the late afternoon sun. The dramatic and severe view seemed entirely fitting for the tower of gray stone that brooded over the landscape.

The carriage slowed through a wide archway in the outer wall of the castle. When they passed abruptly into shadow, Victoria shivered.

Alec frowned. “Are you cold?”

“I’m fine. Just a bit nervous, I expect.”

He pressed her hand. “You needn’t be. Highlanders are famous for their hospitality.”

A moment later, a groom opened the carriage door and set the step. Alec hopped out and then handed her down to the cobblestones of the inner courtyard.

Victoria paused, taking a sniff of the bracing air. “It smells like the ocean, but that’s impossible.”

“This particular loch is salt water,” Alec said. “It runs directly down to the sea.”

She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment as longing swept through her. She’d spent her childhood near the sea and missed it when she’d been at school in Lincoln and then in positions in country manor houses. The familiar, tangy scent felt like home, and something inside her seemed to breathe a sigh of relief.

“I’ve always loved the . . .” She paused when Alec held up a warning hand. Behind her, she heard the firm tread of boot heels on the stone.

“Ah, there you are, Arnprior,” Alec said.

Mentally bracing herself, Victoria smiled as she turned to greet her new employer. Her smile then wobbled on her lips as she took in the tall man, garbed in well-fitting breeches and a dark blue riding coat.

Arnprior was muscular and broad-shouldered, and seemed at first glance as grim and imposing as the keep in which they stood. His long-legged, athletic stride devoured the space between them, and he came to a halt directly in front of her. Victoria was rather tall herself, but she had to look up to meet his gaze. When she did so, all the moisture in her mouth evaporated, apparently taking flight along with the air from her lungs.

The earl’s eyes were a startling, steely blue, made all the more piercing by his tanned complexion and hair so dark it looked black. She had a vague impression of slashing cheekbones, a high-bridged, Roman nose, and a hard but sensual mouth. But it was his gaze that held her attention. It studied her, seeming to strip away her defenses and expose her for the pretender that she was.

After all, she was pretending to be an ordinary English governess and not the by-blow of a barmaid and a future king, as well as a woman who just might end up in prison or swinging from the gallows if things didn’t go her way.

Given its history, she supposed Scotland was as good a place as any to be a great pretender.

For a long, magnetic moment, she and Arnprior stared at each other. Then his gaze moved to Alec. Victoria mentally staggered, as if she’d been held captive by some invisible bond and then suddenly released.

“Arnprior, it’s bloody good to see you,” Alec said, thrusting out his hand.

The earl didn’t exactly smile, but the severe cast to his countenance lightened a shade. “You had good travels, I hope? I’m pleased you were able to reach Kinglas before nightfall.”

His voice was deep and rather rough, with a slight Highland burr. As a musician, Victoria was well attuned to voices. Something about Arnprior’s appealed to her greatly, though it made no sense, given the brusque manner in which he spoke.

“We were happy to hit Arnprior lands.” Alec winked at Victoria. “As were our backsides.”

She blushed, but his jest pulled a slight smile from the earl’s lips. “We’ve been working on that road for several months.”

Then his gaze moved back to Victoria. She felt more warmth come to her cheeks under his perusal.

“But you’ll not be wanting to stand out here in the courtyard talking about estate improvements,” he said.

“I’m forgetting my manners,” Alec said. “Arnprior, may I introduce your new governess, Miss Victoria Knight.”

The earl nodded. “Welcome to Castle Kinglas. My youngest brother is looking forward to meeting you.”

His manner wasn’t rude. Not precisely, anyway. But despite his words, it wasn’t exactly welcoming, either. Mentally shrugging, Victoria descended into a respectful curtsy. “Thank you, Lord Arnprior. I’m eager to meet your brother and take up my duties. Please accept my sincere thanks for the wonderful opportunity you’ve given me.”

When his eyebrows arched up, she ground her teeth. She supposed she did sound a tad obsequious, but that was the result of nerves.

“We’ll see about that,” he replied rather cryptically.

Rather than leading the way inside, he fell to inspecting her again, this time with a frown. She had to resist the temptation to scowl back at him.

“Perhaps we should be getting inside,” Alec prompted. “I’m afraid Miss Knight might be catching a chill.”

“Oh, no, I’m fine,” she said in a sugary voice. “I’d be happy to stand out here all evening.”

Arnprior’s dark eyebrows arched up again.

Lovely. She’d just been rude to her new employer.

“This way, Miss Knight,” he said, waving her forward.

She didn’t miss the rather long-suffering look he cast at Alec. Clearly, she and the earl were off to a less than stellar beginning.

Sighing, she headed toward the enormous oak door, held open by a footman dressed in plain black. An elderly gentleman loomed in the doorway and then stomped out directly in her path, forcing her up short. His thick, snowy eyebrows bristled at her, as if they had a will of their own, and his stare was more hostile than welcoming.

“Och, so herself has arrived, has she?” the man growled.

“Obviously,” the earl growled back as he came up beside her.

“Just what we dinna need,” the elderly fellow said bitterly. “A spoiled little Sassenach telling us what to do.” He spun on his heel and stomped back the way he came.

Victoria was certain Arnprior cursed under his breath as he took her elbow and led her inside.


Too pretty, too slender, too pale.

Miss Knight forcefully reminded Nick of one of the porcelain figurines his stepmother had loved to scatter about the drawing rooms. And like those Dresden misses, this woman appeared ready to shatter with the first bit of rough handling.

Just like Janet had shattered.

Gritting his teeth, he steered her toward the tower house. When she stumbled on the cobbles, he tightened his hand to steady her.

As a first impression, Miss Knight didn’t look like she’d last a week at Kinglas. Not unless they put meat on her bones, color in her cheeks, and dosed her with a physic three times a day. Nick had never had cause to doubt Sir Dominic’s word, but how in God’s name was this weedy, pale-looking girl to manage the disaster that was the Kendrick family? Even he couldn’t do that, and he’d tried everything, including knocking heads together in desperation.

He slid his hand up her arm. Sensing the delicacy of Miss Knight’s frame even under the sturdy fabric of her wool traveling dress, he firmed his grip as he guided her up the steps of the stone porch that fronted the entrance of the great hall.

The girl shot him a sharp, sideways glance, her cornflower-blue eyes frowning a question. Their gazes locked for an instant that seemed oddly intent. Then her focus darted down to her feet again, and a sudden blaze of pink stained her cheekbones, highlighting a complexion so clear and delicate as to be almost translucent. With that hectic blush, the lass almost looked like she was in a high fever.

A string of oaths pushed themselves to the tip of his tongue. The notion of having the care of another delicate flower made his gut tighten with dismay. He’d been down this road once before and vowed never to do it again.

Get a grip, man. She’s only a servant.

He could always send Miss Knight packing, but the fact remained that he needed her. As Braden had so trenchantly pointed out a few weeks ago, the family couldn’t go on as it was. Kade needed the sort of gentle handling Nick couldn’t possibly give him, and his other brothers had been running wild for far too long, wrecking havoc on the countryside. His next step might be to lock up his idiot brothers in the castle dungeon and throw away the key.

Even that likely wouldn’t work, since they’d probably find a way to burn Kinglas to the ground.

Miss Knight, obviously a genteel lady, might be able to do his brothers some good if she survived their initial onslaught. After all, Nick’s stepmother had been a dab hand at managing the lads, including him, and she’d been a truly gentle woman. One sad look or quiet word from her and the Kendrick men had stumbled over themselves to fall into line. Because masculine influence wasn’t working on them, he was desperate enough to hope that a woman’s civilizing guidance might do the trick.

Sir Dominic had thought so too. That was why he’d recommended Miss Knight. Now all Nick could do was hope the girl didn’t die of consumption before they had the chance to put their plan into place.

Angus, stomping in ahead of them, spun to a halt when they entered the hall. With his bushy white hair, ancient leather vest, and even more ancient kilt, he was the very image of a deranged Highlander, albeit a decrepit one. Angus glared so fiercely at Miss Knight it was a miracle the lass didn’t run shrieking back to the carriage.

Nick shot a glance at her perfect profile, framed by her no-nonsense bonnet. She didn’t appear the least bit intimidated by Angus, instead inspecting the old duffer with a haughty regard that almost made Nick laugh.

“Arnprior, perhaps you’ll introduce us to this pleasant gentleman,” Alec said as they halted in the middle of the cavernous stone hall. He punctuated his sarcasm with a genial smile that fooled no one.

“This is my grandfather,” Nick said. “Mr. Angus MacDonald.”

“Yer step-grandfather,” Angus shot back. “My daughter was the old laird’s second wife, from the MacDonald clan. Arnprior is the son of the first Lady Arnprior, who was a MacFarlane. That Lady Arnprior died when the laird here was just a poor, wee lad.”

“Thank you for clarifying,” Nick said dryly. Angus had a tendency to bore visitors with the minute details of clan and family history.

Miss Knight appeared rather flummoxed by the explanation, but Alec looked like he was trying not to laugh. Like all Scotsmen, he understood their frequent obsession with family lineage.

Angus had a slavish devotion to clan ties and proper ranks. Nick didn’t give a hang about any of it, and would have preferred to be called by his military title of major. But the old man was unbending when it came to the dignities due the title, and he invariably pitched a fit if some poor fool referred to Nick as anything other than Laird, Lord, or Earl.

“Mr. MacDonald is also my estate steward,” Nick added. “He looked after the castle, the land holdings, and my brothers while I was away for many years.”

Unfortunately, when it came to the boys.

“And did a splendid job of things, I have no doubt,” Alec said, extending a hand toward Angus.

The old man blinked, then hesitantly took Alec’s hand. “Thank ye, Master. I did my best for the laird, God knows.”

Miss Knight frowned, likely puzzled by the old-fashioned form of address. As heir to the Riddick Earldom, Alec’s courtesy title was Master of Riddick.

“Please call me Captain Gilbride, or Alec, if you prefer. I don’t stand on ceremony.”

When Angus vigorously shook his head, his wild white hair fluttered like dandelion puffs on the wind. “Nay, Master. That wouldna be proper.”

“As you wish,” Alec said. “And now allow me to properly introduce Miss Victoria Knight, Kade’s new governess. Miss Knight, Mr. MacDonald.”

The young woman dipped into a slight curtsy that conveyed appropriate respect for an elderly man and a family member. Nick fancied it also suggested a wee bit of superiority and disdain, if he wasn’t mistaken—as if to say that she was well aware of her own worth. He’d never realized a curtsy could say so much, but hers communicated volumes.

The burgeoning scowl on Angus’s face meant he’d heard the message loud and clear, and had no intention of backing down when it came to challenging the new governess.

Not that the old fellow was particularly agreeable when it came to any of Nick’s plans. In fact, they’d been fighting since the day Nick sold his commission and returned to Kinglas. His grandfather’s resistance to change, whether new ideas on crop management or renovating their crumbling castle, was just one of many problems he faced daily.

“Now that we’ve all been properly introduced,” Nick said, “why don’t we—”

A shrill yapping and the scrabble of nails on stone floors echoed through the hall. A moment later, the entire bloody pack of dogs—all five of them—tumbled into the hall like a gigantic, ill-kempt mop. Bruce careened into Bobby who bumped into Tina, which set off a horrific yowling that reverberated off the stone floors and timbered ceiling. The din was unbelievable.

Once the daft mutts had untangled themselves, four headed straight for Miss Knight while Bruce peeled off and charged for the luggage the footman had just carried in. Before anyone could say a word, the benighted animal lifted a leg and anointed what looked like a man’s traveling kit.

“Bloody hell,” yelped Alec. “That’s my bag.”

The other hounds from hell continued their charge at Miss Knight, who let out a startled squeak. Swiftly, Nick wrapped his hands around her slender waist and lifted her straight up—she weighed about as much as a thistle—and plopped her down safely behind him. He barely heard her strangled gasp over the commotion.

“Stop right there, ye bloody great fools,” roared Angus.

The old fellow was the only one the dogs ever listened to. They came to a sliding halt at Nick’s feet, bouncing into his boots and tumbling into one another. That set off another round of yowling. When two of the idiots tried to charge around Nick to get to Miss Knight, he turned sideways and thrust out a restraining leg, all while keeping a firm hold on her.

“Lord Arnprior, please unhand me,” she said, trying to pry his arms from about her waist.

Nick had noticed right off that she had a lovely voice, cultured and feminine but with an appealing note of down-to-earth warmth. Right now, though, she sounded a bit screechy. The poor lass must have been convinced she’d stumbled upon a madhouse. There were many days when Nick felt the same. Unfortunately for him, there was no hope of escape.

“My lord, please,” she said through clenched teeth.

“Forgive me,” he said, reluctantly letting her go. He stood in front her, just to be sure.

“If you think I’m afraid of dogs, you are sorely mistaken, my lord,” she said in a voice that could freeze the bullocks off a bull. “Although this particular pack does seem exceedingly ill-behaved.”

Fortunately, Angus had more or less gotten them under control by now. Three had plopped down in front of Nick, wagging their tails and panting like they’d run a marathon. The other two had rolled onto their backs in front of Alec—including Bruce, who’d disgraced himself with the luggage. Alec didn’t seem to hold it against the dog, though, since he was rubbing the idiot’s belly.

“That’s better, ye daft beasties,” Angus said in an approving tone. “No more larking about like ye dinna ken yer manners.”

Nick didn’t bother to hold back a snort. Miss Knight was correct—they were exceedingly bad dogs that took their cue from their ill-mannered master.

The governess peered around him. “What sort of dogs are those, if I might ask?”

The tone of her voice suggested she wasn’t very impressed. It was understandable, since they’d obviously been rolling around in the mud. Thankfully, they hadn’t gotten into the stables or paddock. If they had, they would have smelled a great deal worse.

Alec rose to his feet with a wry grin. “These fine specimens are Skye terriers, an ancient and venerable Scottish breed. One of their ancestors was with Mary, Queen of Scots at her beheading, hiding under her skirts. Loyal to the very end, he was.”

“Really?” Miss Knight said. “They look rather like ragged dust cloths to me. Not that I know much about Scottish dog breeds,” she hastily added.

When she gave Nick an apologetic grimace, he shrugged. He shared her view, preferring larger breeds like the deerhound. But these dogs were the descendants of his stepmother’s beloved terriers, and were particularly cherished by Angus as a connection to his daughter’s memory. Nick didn’t have the heart to farm them out to his tenants, who could have used them as ratters or even as guard dogs, since they loved barking their fool heads off.

Predictably, Angus had bristled at Miss Knight’s insult to his darlings.

“That’s no surprise,” he said with a sneer. “Coming from a blasted Sassenach.”

“And here we go,” Alec muttered, shaking his head.

Miss Knight went stiff as a poker, throwing daggers at Angus with her imperious gaze. The battle lines had been drawn before the girl had even taken off her bonnet. As for his grandfather, at the moment Nick would be happy to haul him up to the top of the battlements and throw him off.

“That’s enough, Angus,” he said sharply. “Miss Knight is our guest.”

“I’ll no have her insulting my bairns,” the old man growled back. “They’re just trying to be friendly.”

“They can be friendly some other time,” Nick said. “Such as after they’ve been bathed. Now, please get them out of here.”

Grumbling, Angus began to round up the dogs. Nick was about to order him to also find the housekeeper when Mrs. Taffy finally came hurrying from the back of the house.

“Forgive me, Laird,” she said. Her wrinkled face was flushed, and a few strands of snowy white hair had escaped from under her tidy lace cap. “We had a bit of an upset in the kitchen,” she added, scowling at the dogs.

Nick sighed. “The pantry?”

“The cold room,” she replied tersely. “I apologize, sir, but dinner may be a wee bit late.”

Obviously, the dogs had made yet another raid on the kitchen. Nick’s cook, although a good-natured soul, was not particularly competent, either at cooking or managing her kitchen. She had yet to poison anyone, but dinner frequently arrived cold, late, or occasionally not at all, depending on what particular crisis had developed belowstairs.

When the housekeeper narrowed her irate gaze on Angus, he blushed. There was only one person at Kinglas who could corral the old man, and that was Taffy, who’d been with the family for decades.

“I’ll take care of it,” Angus muttered. He stomped off to the kitchens, the dogs trotting happily behind him.

Quiet finally returned to the hall. Nick didn’t think he imagined Miss Knight’s sigh of relief.

“This is Mrs. Taffy, our housekeeper,” he said. “She’ll take care of all your needs.”

Taffy gave Miss Knight a kind smile and bobbed her head. “It’s a pleasure, miss. I’ll do my best to make your stay here comfortable.”

Miss Knight gave Taffy a sweet smile in return. It seemed to light her up from within, turning her porcelain features from pretty to beautiful. He registered a slight shock at the realization before forcing himself to shrug it off. He had no interest in her looks, only in her abilities.

“Perhaps you could escort Miss Knight to her room to set aside her things,” he said more brusquely than he intended. “Then she can join us in the east drawing room for tea.”

When Taffy grimaced again, Nick sighed. “Is there some difficulty?”

“I’ve had to switch Miss Knight to a different room,” she said. “The chimney in the blue bedroom started smoking.”

Nick frowned. “It’s never done so before.”

If there was one thing he and Angus agreed on, it was the importance of keeping the chimneys and fireplaces clean and in good repair. Winters in the Highlands were cold, damp, and long. Winters in a drafty old castle on a loch were even worse. Without reliable heating, the household would be miserable for months.

“Something seems to have got caught in the flue.” Taffy’s tone told Nick everything he needed to know. Something hadn’t got caught. Something had been deliberately placed in the flue with the intention of causing mischief.

He had a good idea who the guilty party was.

“I apologize,” Nick said to his guests, resisting the impulse to gnash his teeth. “This seems to be a day for domestic calamity at Kinglas.”

“Might I suggest, sir, that you have tea while I see to a new room for the lady,” Taffy said. “The maid will unpack her bags, and we’ll have everything set to right in no time at all.”

“That sounds splendid,” Alec said in a hearty voice. “I’m famished, and I’m sure Miss Knight would relish a cup of tea.”

“Or a sherry,” the governess muttered in a barely audible voice. Then, no doubt realizing her slip, she blushed an enchanting shade of pink.

Despite his foul humor, Nick couldn’t help smiling. “I’m sure sherry could be arranged. Or even perhaps a stiff dram of Scotch. I wouldn’t blame you for needing it after our less-than-stellar welcome.”

She gave him a smile that finally reached her eyes, calling notice to the fact that they were a rather spectacular shade of blue.

“Thank you, my lord, but a cup of tea will do just fine.”

“I’ll send Andrew in with the tea things,” Taffy said. She bobbed a curtsy and hurried off to the back of the house.

“This way,” Nick said, nodding toward the central stone staircase.

Robert, the castle’s youngest footman, scurried from his position by the front door and preceded them to the first floor, turning right to the east wing and the main drawing room. After bowing them through the door, the lad went off to fetch the tea tray.

“What a splendid place you’ve got here, Arnprior,” Alec said, taking in the spacious, Queen Anne–style drawing room.

This wing was hundreds of years newer than the main tower house, and had yet to start crumbling around their ears. The scrolled walnut furniture and the red and gold fabrics were rather dated and too grand for Nick’s taste, but the sixteenth-century tapestries on either side of the stone-surround fireplace, with their depictions of royal hunting parties, were magnificent. Taffy had managed to fill several tabletops with late-blooming mums in warm yellows and deep reds that matched the tapestries.

The best part was the view of the loch. The ornamental gardens behind the castle and the lawns running down to the water were already steeped in shadows as evening approached. The last glimmers of sunshine danced across the loch, making the whitecaps glitter like crystals flung from a giant’s hand.

Miss Knight headed straight to the windows. Although her slim build emphasized fragility rather than strength, she carried herself with a graceful confidence Nick found reassuring. Most ladies that tall often minced, seeking to minimize a characteristic considered unfeminine.

“This is a breathtaking vista, my lord,” she said, casting him a quick smile over her shoulder. “I had no idea Castle Kinglas was actually on the water.”

“It’s our constant neighbor,” he said. “One that is much more accommodating in the summer, I might add. The winter storms on the loch can be fierce.”

“I won’t mind,” she said. “I miss the ocean, and am glad to be near water again.”

The door opened and Angus stomped in, followed by Robert and Andrew. The footmen lugged in the tea things, along with a tray loaded with cakes and pastries. Cook had managed to pull off a decent tea.

“You grew up by the ocean, Miss Knight?” Nick asked politely.

She returned to join them in the center of the room. “Yes, in Brighton. My cousins and I spent as much time by the seaside as our parents would allow. It was always a treat.”

“Och, Brighton,” Angus said with contempt. “Where Prinny and those bloody royal dukes lark about with rakes and ladybirds, spending money they dinna have. I ken we’d be better off if they drowned in the Channel.”

Miss Knight paused in the act of pulling off her gloves, her features freezing in offended lines. Even Alec looked irritated, but his natural father was one of the royal dukes, although that wasn’t widely known. Nick was surprised, however, that Miss Knight was so thoroughly starched up, since the Prince Regent and his brothers were generally reviled. Angus’s comment was crass, but the sentiments were hardly uncommon.

Then again, Miss Knight seemed something of a high stickler, which was one of the reasons Nick wished to employ her.

“Careful, Mr. MacDonald, or I’ll have to arrest you for treason,” Alec said dryly.

Angus flashed him a grin. “Why, I’d be doin’ the country a service if I took the whole lot down myself. The prime minister would probably give me a medal, and any good Scotsman would be filled with pride.”

“I hardly think the prime minister or anyone else would thank you for expressing such a distressing opinion,” Miss Knight said tartly. “I find that sort of remark deeply offensive, as would any person of sense.”

Robert and Andrew froze in the process of setting up the tea tray, staring at Angus with something akin to alarm. Like Nick, they knew exactly what was going to happen.

Angus spun to face the girl, a gleeful smile creasing his wrinkled face. “Of course ye would. What else would anyone expect from a Sassenach? Ye like nothing better than grinding yer boot heels in the faces of good Scottish men and women. Well, let me tell ye, lassie—”

“No, Angus, you will not tell anyone anything,” Nick interjected. “And we can leave the discussion of Scottish nationalism for a time when Captain Gilbride and Miss Knight are not a captive audience.”

He regarded the Prince Regent as a disgrace to his family and his country, but he’d served under the Duke of York and had found him to be a fair and capable commander. And engaging with Angus was asking for more trouble than it was worth. Still, the governess had to learn to deal with the old fellow sooner or later. Nick wouldn’t always be around to come to her defense.

Nick’s grandfather scowled back at him, and for a few moments they waged a silent struggle. Finally, Angus grumbled his surrender and subsided into his favorite chair by the fireplace.

“Thank you,” Nick said. “Miss Knight, would you be so kind as to pour the tea?”

She ignored his request, continuing to glare at Angus as if she might storm up and bash him on the head. What the devil was wrong with her, anyway? Angus had certainly stepped out of line, but her response seemed exaggerated.

“Miss Knight, if you have finished arguing with my grandfather, I repeat that I would be greatly obliged if you would pour the tea,” Nick said in the voice he’d used on insubordinate junior officers.

She flinched, and her gaze jumped to meet his. Her cheeks flushed a pale pink, but then her frown smoothed into a polite, bland expression—the one that the best sort of servants adopted when what they really wanted to do was throttle their employers.

“I beg your pardon, my lord,” she said calmly. “I certainly didn’t wish to offend you or Mr. MacDonald.”

“Of course ye did,” snipped Angus.

“No, Mr. MacDonald, she did not,” Alec said sternly. Then he looked at Nick with a cool, warning gaze. “I trust you realize that as well, Arnprior.”

Something was going on here that Nick didn’t quite understand. While Alec knew better than to take grumpy old Highlanders too seriously, his friend clearly felt a high degree of loyalty to Miss Knight. If he didn’t know Alec was absolutely devoted to his wife, he might even think the two were romantically involved.

That was nonsensical, of course, but something about Miss Knight was definitely off.

“It’s perfectly fine, Captain Gilbride,” she said. “Please, if you’ll all be seated, I’ll be happy to serve tea.”

She glided over to the tilt-top table where Andrew and Robert had set up the tea, giving them a sweet smile that prompted the footmen to grin back like besotted fools. Nick made a mental note to remind Taffy to give the male staff a stern warning when it came to Miss Knight. The last thing he needed were his men tripping over their own feet as they mooned after some winsome English lass. It would be hard enough keeping his brothers Graeme and Grant from flirting with her.

As if on cue, the door flew open, and the twins charged through. Unshaven, and garbed in kilts, leather vests, and muddy boots, they looked like younger versions of their grandfather. All they needed were dirks in their belts and tams on their heads to complete the picture of wild Highlanders.

In truth, they were simply boisterous lads, a little lost but trying very hard to be men—good men, if Nick had anything to say about it. But thanks to a combination of factors, one being their grandfather’s influence, his brothers were kicking over the traces with disastrous results. It was why he’d been desperate enough to reach out to Sir Dominic for help. The wily magistrate had sent him Victoria Knight by way of reply, and Nick sincerely hoped she had the temperament and fortitude to do the job.

Graeme swaggered into the room with Grant following closely on his heels. They came to a stop a few feet in front of the governess. Since the twins were well over six feet, she had to tilt her head back to look at them.

“We’ve come ta meet the new lassie,” Graeme said, in a brogue so exaggerated Nick wanted to either laugh or murder him. “We heard she was a rare beauty, even if she is a Sassenach.” He punctuated his comment by waggling his eyebrows in what he obviously thought was a flirtatious manner.

I’ll definitely have to murder him.

Miss Knight’s dumbfounded expression transformed into one that mingled horror and outrage. If Graeme kept it up, Nick predicted that the first act of their new governess would be to box her pupil’s ears.

Grant dug his elbow into his brother’s side, obviously wanting in on the fun. He was never the lead, but willingly followed in Graeme’s reckless footsteps.

Making sheep’s eyes at the poor woman, as if he were about to launch into a serenade or a love sonnet, Grant pressed a hand to his heart. “How lucky can two fellas get ta have such a bonny teacher? We promise ta be the best pupils ye ever had, and mayhap we can even teach ye a thing or two.”

Miss Knight’s only reply was a choking noise that sounded like someone was strangling her.


Victoria’s breath caught as she realized the magnitude of the task looming before her. Both Sir Dominic and Alec had been deliberately vague in describing her new duties, and now she knew why. To live in a remote Highland manor with a family of brash men would be daunting. While the earl was obviously a gentleman, though grim to the point of unwelcoming, Mr. MacDonald was another matter entirely. Unwelcoming couldn’t begin to describe his behavior.

But it was now also clear she was actually expected to teach the Kendrick brothers—well, something. And, good Lord, who knew what other ghastly surprises were in store when the rest of the brothers finally surfaced?

“These must be the twins,” Alec said, stating the obvious. The young men were the proverbial peas in a pod.

Her cousin had stood and inserted himself between her and the strapping young brothers, as if to protect her. At the moment, however, the only people needing protection were the twins. She was sorely tempted to box their ears for behaving like utter cads.

The earl rose, looking rather like Zeus, with thunderclouds roiling about his head and lightning sparking from his noble brow. “Yes, I regret to say these sorry specimens are my brothers.”

He stalked over, crowding the twins step-by-step toward the fireplace. By the time the young men’s shoulders hit the edge of the mantelpiece, their mischievous expressions were more those of sheepish boys in a great deal of trouble.

“We were just excited to meet the lassie,” the twin on the left said, the obvious leader. “We meant no harm at all, Nick.”

“Aye,” chimed in the other one, nodding his head so vigorously his unkempt red hair flopped in front of his eyes. “No harm at all.”

“First of all, you will cease using that absurd brogue,” the earl ordered. “You were raised in a gentleman’s household, and you will speak and act like gentlemen. Is that clear?”

“Yes, Nick,” they said in chorus. Their almost incomprehensible accent had already diminished, now simply coloring their voices with a hint of the Highlands. Victoria suspected they’d been putting it on, probably to annoy her.

Who in his right mind could expect her to tutor these grown men? That was not what she had agreed to in coming here.

“Secondly,” Arnprior continued, “you will not refer to the lady as either lassie, Sassenach, or any other disrespectful term. You will address her as either Miss Knight or ma’am. Is that clear?”

Two red heads bobbed in unison. “Yes, Nick.”

Arnprior nodded tersely and took a few steps back. The twins’ shoulders came down from around their ears. They were obviously a handful, but it was clear they respected their older brother—perhaps even feared him.

Victoria shifted in her chair, suddenly uneasy. The earl was a stern man who demanded respect, as she would have expected from someone who’d commanded a military regiment. But she hoped he wasn’t cruel or angry, because she’d had enough of that to last a lifetime. Even the lure of money or a sterling recommendation couldn’t compel her to stay under his roof if such was the case.

Arnprior propped his hands on his hips, perusing his brothers with a look that now spoke more of resignation than anger. “And I suppose you were so eager to greet Miss Knight that you couldn’t take the time to change instead of coming here looking like unwashed field hands?”

“The lads were just muckin’ about with a bit of honest work,” said Mr. MacDonald. “There’s no need to be naggin’ at them.”

The old man had been surprisingly quiet the last few minutes. Perhaps even he’d been startled by the earl’s fury and had thought better of getting involved.

Arnprior shot him a hard look. “And where, pray tell, have they been mucking about? More to the point, were you mucking about with them?”

“Aye. I took them to old MacBride’s. He needed help with some of his sheep pens, and the lads offered to lend a hand.”

“Repairing sheep pens?” Arnprior said sardonically. “That doesn’t sound like the lads. Normally, they’re getting into the kind of trouble that requires me to make financial restitution to some unfortunate soul.”

“Nick, old man, there’s no need to embarrass us in front of the lady,” protested one of the twins.

“Gosh,” said the other with a comical grimace. “You’re making us look like a pair of jingle brains.”

The earl snorted as he took in their pleading expressions, then flicked a glance to the stone-faced Mr. MacDonald. A fraught silence stretched out, broken only by the crackle of flames and the hissing of resin in the grate.

The twins, now rather red-faced, peered nervously at their grandfather. Clearly, there was something amiss, something Victoria thought the earl was trying to puzzle out.

“Let it go, Nicholas,” the old man finally said. “At least for now.”

Turning from his grandfather, Arnprior lightly cuffed the nearest twin on the shoulder. “You’re both daft lads. And you’ll be the death of me yet.”

His brothers grinned at him with affection and relief. “We know, but you love us anyway, don’t you?” said the cheekier one.

Arnprior let out a short laugh. “God knows why. Now, come meet Miss Knight properly, and remember your manners.”

When he turned back to her, the storm had fully passed and a glint of humor now lightened his gaze. The gleeful smile the twins exchanged behind his back, as if they’d just pulled one over on their big brother, also went a long way to relieving her concerns about Arnprior’s temperament. She suspected his stern demeanor was necessary to keep his chaotic household under some semblance of control.

Since Victoria also hated chaos, she sympathized with his desire to impose order.

“Miss Knight, I would like to introduce my brothers. This is Graeme,” the earl said, gesturing to the brasher of the two. “And this is Grant.”

Graeme’s bow was the more flourishing, as was the smile he flashed. He would be the bigger problem, since he clearly fancied himself a charmer.

“Good afternoon, Miss Knight,” he said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Yes, ma’am,” said Grant. “We’re quite looking forward to our lessons with you. Nick—I mean, the earl, has told us we must work very hard and absorb everything you have to teach us.”

Victoria was rising from a quick curtsy, but those words practically locked her knees in place. “Lessons? Surely you’re both much too old for a governess,” she said with an uneasy chuckle.

“Too bloody right,” muttered Angus, scowling at her.

Victoria was growing quite tired of his ugly scowls. There would have to be a reckoning with the old man, but right now she had other concerns.

“We’re twenty-two, Miss Knight,” Graeme said. “But Nick says we still need tutoring.”

“Not that we necessarily agree with him,” Grant added hastily, “but he says you’ll teach us all we need to know, and that you’ll soon set us to rights.”

She frowned. “Did you not attend university, or have tutors?”

“Both,” Arnprior tersely replied.

An uncomfortable silence ensued.

“Then, what happened?” Victoria prodded.

The twins exchanged a puzzled glance, as if they expected her to already know the details.

“We got kicked out of university,” Graeme finally said.

Argh. “Officially, or were you just sent down for a term?”

“Kicked out and told never to return,” Grant said morosely.

What had they done to deserve so severe a punishment? When she looked at the earl, he seemed oddly detached from the conversation, as if waiting for her to react. Dominic sometimes wore that look, and she didn’t like it.

“My lord, are you asking me to take over the lessons your brothers would have received at university?” she asked. “Because if so, I do not feel qualified. They should have a male tutor in that case.”

The earl gestured toward her chair, his broad shoulders shifting under the dark cloth of his jacket. “Why don’t we have tea first, and then discuss the matter? Would you mind doing the honors, Miss Knight?”

Alec, who’d obviously been throttling back his irritation, finally spoke up. “Arnprior, this should not be a complicated discussion. Simply tell Miss Knight what you expect.”

“Tea first,” the earl said. “Then I’ll explain.”

Alec threw up a hand. “Confound it—”

Arnprior cut him off. “Everyone sit down. Now.”

The twins scrambled to comply, all but tripping over themselves to sit on a scroll-backed settee across from Victoria. They plunked down so vigorously that she feared the settee’s delicate cabriolet legs would collapse under the strain. Alec remained standing, glaring at his host. Arnprior crossed his arms over his brawny chest and lifted an imperious eyebrow to calmly stare back at him.

Alec finally rolled his eyes and capitulated. Her cousin was a big, confident man who’d also had a distinguished career in the military, and was heir to an earldom. But Arnprior was something different, and that difference was impressive. Victoria judged him to be at least ten years older than Alec, and he evoked an authority that suggested he bent to no man, even one of higher station.

His commanding manner and intense gaze produced an odd effect in Victoria. It made her insides seem to quiver, something she did not appreciate.

The earl handed her to the elegant walnut armchair. Victoria’s skin prickled as his hand wrapped around hers, the feel of his callused fingers a bit unnerving. Ever since Fletcher’s attack, she’d been skittish at the touch of a man. Chloe had assured her that those worrying feelings would eventually pass, and Victoria could only hope such would be the case. She hated having to suffer a fearful response whenever a stranger, or even an acquaintance, so much as brushed against her.

Arnprior pulled over a wingback chair and sat at one end of the tea table. Though the chair was massive and heavy looking, the earl picked it up as if it had been constructed of mere twigs.

“Ooh, seedcakes,” said Graeme, reaching for the cake plate as Victoria began to pour. “Taffy’s are the best, Miss Knight. Cook’s aren’t nearly as good.”

“Actually, Cook’s are rather dreadful,” said Grant. “And Taffy only makes hers for special occasions. Hand me one, will you, Graeme?”

Victoria clutched the Chinese porcelain teapot and stared at the twins. Not only were their hands in a distressing state of grubbiness, they were wolfing down the cakes like . . . well, ravenous wolves. To say their manners were appalling understated the case.

“Good God,” muttered Alec when Graeme wiped his mouth on his sleeve. It was a sentiment Victoria shared. The earl had claimed that his brothers were gentlemen, yet so far she’d seen no evidence to back up that assertion.

She peeked at Arnprior to gauge his reaction to his brothers’ disgraceful behavior and almost dropped the teapot. He was, once again, singularly focused on her. Was he waiting to see if she would reveal her distaste or faint dead away at the twins’ boorish behavior? If so, he was in for a surprise.

Still, she had to close her eyes for a few seconds to clamp down on a surge of frustration. She was tired and crabby from the long days on the road, and she had yet to even wash her face or brush the travel dirt from her clothes.

Alec touched her arm. “Victoria, are you quite well?”

She forced a smile. If the earl was testing her ability to maintain her poise—which seemed the only reasonable explanation—then she was more than ready to show her mettle.

“I’m quite well, thank you,” she said as she prepared Alec a cup. After handing it over, she regarded her host. “And what do you take in your tea, my lord?”

“I take it plain.” Arnprior nodded his thanks when she served him, and then began chatting with Alec while she prepared cups for the twins.

Graeme gave her a pointed wink when she handed one to him, which she just as pointedly ignored. Victoria already had his measure. He was basically harmless, and best dealt with by refusing to respond to provocations he cast in her path.

When Grant bobbed his head and shyly thanked her, she rewarded him with a smile that prompted a scowl from his twin. Clearly, Graeme was the mischief-maker, while Grant simply followed his brother’s lead. If left to his own devices, Grant would probably be much less disposed to get into trouble. It was a vulnerability she intended to exploit—if she decided to stay in this madhouse past the next twenty-four hours.

She glanced at Mr. MacDonald, sitting apart by the fire- place. She didn’t know if he was chilly, or making a point by being standoffish. Probably the latter. “Mr. MacDonald, what do you take in your tea?”

“Milk and two lumps,” he barked.

She prepared the cup and held it out. The old man sneered, crossing his arms over his chest. Victoria refused to budge from her chair. She had to draw a firm line or be forever bullied by him and everyone else who might be inclined to follow his lead. Having been a governess for several years, she’d come to expect a certain disregard from those she served. But she would no longer tolerate bullies or any sort of brutish behavior, even from someone holding a favored position in the household.

Especially if he had a favored position, given the disaster of her last situation.

The room had fallen silent again.

“Is there a problem, Miss Knight?” the earl finally asked.

“Not at all, my lord.” She continued to hold the cup steady, resisting the urge to stalk over and dump it on the old man’s head. Or Lord Arnprior’s, for that matter, if he didn’t stop scowling at her.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Alec struggling not to grin, and that gave her a boost of courage. Her arm was beginning to tire, though, so she hoped the impasse wouldn’t last much longer.

“For pity’s sake, Angus,” the earl said, “just fetch your blasted cup.”

The old man jerked up his chin. “If ye think I’ll be panderin’ to some—”

Grant jumped to his feet. “I’ll bring it to you, Grandda.”

The young man snatched the cup from Victoria’s hand, slopping tea into the saucer, and hurried over to his grandfather.

Mr. MacDonald smiled at his grandson. “Yer a good lad. Anyone who thinks ye need tutorin’ on your manners is daft.” Then he shot Victoria a triumphant sneer.

She forced herself to calmly pour her own cup, taking a sip while she composed her thoughts. Arnprior had gone back to observing her with that steady but rather grim regard. She apparently was not passing the test, even though she’d kept her poise under trying circumstances.

After setting her cup down on the table with a decided click, she met the earl’s gaze. “I have a few questions, my lord, if you don’t mind.”

“About your tasks?” Arnprior nodded. “Yes, we’ll get to that in a minute.”

“I think we should get to it now,” Alec said bluntly. “Miss Knight can then determine if she wishes to take up the position or return to Glasgow with me.”

Mr. MacDonald and the twins perked up considerably. It seemed the twins were not looking forward to her tutelage, after all.

“I didn’t realize Miss Knight was thinking of bolting already,” the earl replied.

“Of course I’m not thinking of bolting,” she snapped.

Well, actually she was. She managed to keep a straight face—but just barely—when the earl regarded her with an ironic gaze.

“I’m glad to hear it,” he said. “Before I outline your duties, perhaps you’d care to give me some sense of your experience. Sir Dominic’s letter was lacking in details, I’m afraid.” His glance slid over her, head to toe. “You seem rather young to have done much teaching.”

“I am five and twenty, my lord, and I’ve been teaching for seven years,” she said stiffly.

“That long?”

Mentally consigning him to the devil, she folded her hands in her lap.

“Perhaps you can outline both your education and your previous teaching positions,” he added.

“Certainly, sir. I attended school for several years at Miss Kirby’s Seminary for Young Ladies in Lincoln, which has an excellent reputation for both academics and music. I teach all the usual subjects like history and geography, along with French and Italian, and I’m proficient in music, playing both the pianoforte and the harp.”

“Kade will like that, won’t he, Nick?” Grant piped up. “All he thinks about is music.”

“Unfortunately,” muttered Mr. MacDonald.

Victoria then gave the earl a thorough rundown on her past employment. Arnprior listened with a skeptical air.

“You clearly have a great deal experience teaching girls of all ages,” he said when she was finished. “But you said little about boys. How many have you taught over the years?”

“Not many, as I’m sure you’d already deduced.”

“That leads me to wonder why you think you can take on the teaching of older boys, or even young men.”

“Arnprior, you do realize that Sir Dominic would never have recommended Miss Knight for the position if he didn’t think she could do it,” Alec said in an irritated voice.

The earl flashed a humorless smile. “One would think so. Miss Knight, I understand you do not have a reference from your last employer. Why is that?”

Fortunately, Dominic had coached her on how to respond to this predictable but still nerve-wracking question. “Because I decided to leave the position. I felt it did not suit my skills.”

His expressive eyebrows lifted once more. “Really?”

“Yes, really,” she said firmly. “My pupils were too young to benefit from my experience and level of skills.”

“And are you always so particular about what positions you take?”

“Indeed I am, my lord. Which is why I’d like to—”

The door opened and a man strode into the room. Garbed in a kilt and leather vest like Mr. MacDonald and the twins—although a good deal cleaner, thank God—he was clearly a Kendrick. He was a few years older than the twins and his hair was burnished chestnut rather than flaming red. Unlike his brothers, his handsome features lacked any trace of good humor.

He stalked over, his long stride marked by a limp. As he stopped directly in front of Victoria, his striking green gaze swept over her, eyeing her with disdain.

“So you’re the new tutor,” he growled as she stared up at him. “I’ll warn you right now, lassie. You can stay the hell away from me.”

The Highlander’s Princess Bride

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