On the road, somewhere in Kent
To say that he was never the life of the party was an epic understatement, as Fergus Haddon well knew. Lady Reese seemed determined to hammer the point home with ruthless efficiency.
“You simply must try harder.” The viscountess wagged a finger at him from the opposite side of the carriage. “Hiding behind ballroom columns, mumbling to yourself, will hardly endear you to young ladies.”
“I wasn’t mumbling to myself,” he said. “I was merely whistling under my breath.”
He’d done that for as long as he could remember, whenever he was bored or irritated. And at most of the ton parties Lady Reese had dragged him to since his arrival in London a few weeks ago, he was one or the other. Often both.
“A most unfortunate habit,” Lady Reese said. “And not one that will aid in your efforts to find a wife, especially an English one.”
“But I don’t want a wife,” Fergus protested. “Especially an English one.”
Any other woman might have been offended by his blunt reply, but not Lady Reese. She was made of sterner stuff. “Nonsense. Any gentleman with a brain in his head wishes to get married. Is that not so, William?”
Captain Will Endicott, Lady Reese’s son-in-law, had long ago given up trying to look interested in their conversation. In fact, he’d all but dozed off in the opposite corner of the carriage. But he snapped to attention when addressed by the imperious viscountess. Any man—or woman, for that matter—ignored her at his peril.
“Ah, yes, of course,” Will said, struggling to appear as if he’d been following their absurd conversation. “I’m sure you’re absolutely right. No doubt about it.”
Lady Reese gave Fergus a triumphant nod. “You see, William agrees with me. And he should know. After all, he is now a high-ranking British diplomat in Vienna.”
Evelyn Endicott, who was seated next to Fergus, let out a lady-like snort. “Will has no idea what you’re talking about, Mamma. He’s been asleep off and on for the last hour.”
Lady Reese shifted in her seat and gazed at her son-in-law with narrowed eyes. “Surely that is not the case.”
“Certainly not,” Will protested. “I’ve heard every word.”
“Really?” Evelyn said. “Then please tell us what have we been talking about.”
Will gave her a sheepish grin. “Well, maybe I did miss a word, here and there. You know I didn’t get much sleep last night.” When he winked at his wife, she blushed a deep shade of pink.
Lady Reese gave a disapproving cluck, although it wasn’t clear if she was more offended by Will’s mildly risqué jest or his failure to hang on her every word.
“We’ve been talking about my utter ineptitude when it comes to socializing,” Fergus said, coming to his rescue. “Something I sadly cannot dispute.”
“You’re not inept,” Evelyn said in a bracing tone. “You’re simply a little…”
“Hopeless?” he filled in sardonically.
It was the simple truth—not that he cared about not knowing how to gossip or prattle on like, well, a prat. He had better things to do than drone on about cards, cravats, and the latest play. Or, at least he’d hadbetter things to do before his uncle, the Earl of Riddick, had sent him south to recuperate, as he’d put it.
“Perhaps a tad shy,” Evelyn said.
“And if I thought you were hopeless,” Lady Reese added, “I would never have offered to sponsor you in the first place.”
She had most definitely not offered to sponsor him. In fact, her ladyship had been dragooned into hosting him for the winter by her other daughter, Edie, who was married to Alec Gilbride, Lord Riddick’s grandson and heir. That made him Fergus’ well-meaning but interfering cousin. Originally, it had been Edie’s idea to send Fergus south to London after his illness. She’d decided that leaving the fresh, healthy air of the Highlands to spend the winter in London, with its dirt, chaos, and noise, would be just the thing to restore his health and set him to rights.
It was another one of Edie’s madcap notions, and Fergus had told her so in rather forceful terms. Unfortunately, like everyone else in her blasted family, Edie never backed down. She’d managed to convince not only her husband but also Lord Riddick. And since Lord Riddick was his laird and employer, Fergus had found himself at the end of November in one of the earl’s luxurious travelling coaches, making the dreary journey to the London townhouse of Lord and Lady Reese.
With every passing mile away from Scotland, Fergus had sunk further into gloom. He hadn’t exactly been capering with joy before that, given all the family troubles of the last few years. The only thing that gave him any satisfaction these days was his job as the estate steward for his uncle. Riddick lands and the people who worked them meant everything to Fergus. Like clan and family, they were what truly mattered.
Edie’s absurd plan to restore him to health was made infinitely more hideous by her mother’s determination to find him an English wife. As if any pampered society miss would wish to marry a Highlander who worked for a living and had only a modest estate and a small manor house in an isolated valley to call his own. The latest scheme involved hauling him off to various house parties to meet eligible young ladies in what Lady Reese called a more comfortable and intimate setting. Fergus had told her that it wouldn’t make a damn bit of difference what the setting was, but the blasted woman simply wouldn’t listen.
“Give it up, old man,” Will said in a sympathetic tone. “When the ladies decide you have to do something, you’d best just get on with it.”
“If that doesn’t take the cake,” Evelyn said indignantly. “Will Endicott, you are always ordering me about.”
“I do no such thing,” he said. “Besides, you generally ignore what I say anyway.”
Lady Reese gave an approving nod. “My daughters are no fools. I raised them to think for themselves.”
“Thank you, Mamma,” Evelyn said, giving her husband a triumphant grin.
“Now, Fergus,” Lady Reese said, again pinning him with her hawk-like gaze. “I have made allowances for the fact that London might have been a tad overwhelming for a man of your sensitive nature.”
“Good God, I’m not the least bit sensitive,” he said. “I’m rude and opinionated, which you’ve pointed out more than once. And I’m not overwhelmed by London. I simply don’t like it.”
“Nonsense. Everyone likes London. And certainly you are sensitive. I used to think that all Scotsmen were ill mannered, but now I realize they’re often simply melancholic. And who can blame them, living as they do at the back of beyond.”
“But you love Scotland, Mamma,” Evelyn said. “You always have a grand time when you visit Edie and Alec.”
Especially when Lady Reese got into his uncle’s finest whisky, Fergus had noticed.
“Scotland is quite charming in small doses, although certainly not in winter,” her mother replied. “Fergus, unfortunately, has lived there his entire life, which accounts for his brooding nature.”
“That is just ridiculous,” he said. And embarrassing. If the carriage weren’t going so fast, he’d be tempted to throw himself out.
“Please do not interrupt,” Lady Reese said. “I now consider you quite like one of my own children, Fergus. As such, I have only your best interests at heart.”
Evelyn wrinkled her nose with sympathy at that appalling pronouncement, although Will was obviously stifling laughter. He was probably thrilled that Lady Reese had another hapless victim to manage, since it meant less of his mother-in-law’s notice on him.
“That’s very sweet of you, but I’m sure Fergus is capable of taking care of himself,” Evelyn said.
“Clearly he is not, given that he fell ill after working himself so hard,” Lady Reese said. “Lord Riddick was quite clear with me that Fergus was in need of a rest. And he expressly asked me to help find the dear boy a suitable wife. As you know, I’m very good at that.”
“I truly doubt that my uncle asked you to marry me off,” Fergus said, starting to feel a tad desperate. “Especially to a Sassenach.”
“You must learn to put your irrational prejudice against English ladies aside,” Lady Reese said in a severe tone. “While Lord Riddick might not have directly asked me to find you a wife, I was able to deduce his intentions with no difficulty.”
“That really doesn’t sound much like his lordship, Mamma,” Evelyn said.
“Of course it doesn’t sound like him,” Fergus said. If his uncle was so hell bent on marrying him off, he’d want Fergus to find a sturdy Scottish lass and not a pampered English beauty. “Not that it matters, since I have no intention of getting married. Besides, it’s no longer necessary.”
Not since Edie Gilbride was now with child. Though Fergus was technically still in the line of succession to the Riddick title, after Alec, the pressure for him to get married and produce an heir was moot.
“I’m thrilled, of course, that my daughter is enceinte,” Lady Reese said. “But that hardly means you need to adopt the life of a monk. A wife would be just the thing to cheer you up.”
Fergus finally indulged in a bit of temper, scowling at his tormenter. “I do not wish to get married.”
“Nonsense. Everyone wants to get married.”
“Well, I don’t. It’s a bloody awful idea, and we all know why.”
After an awkward silence, Lady Reese spoke first. “Because of your mother?” she asked in a surprisingly sympathetic tone. “I for one have never held with the view that madness is hereditary, and Lord Riddick assures me that no one else in your family has ever displayed an inclination to lunatic behavior. True, I will admit that your sister is rather odd, but she’s not the sort to go raving about and trying to murder people.”
“I should hope not,” said Will, “since Donella is now in the process of becoming a nun.”
“You never know, William,” Lady Reese said mysteriously. “I’ve read accounts about convents and monasteries that would make your hair stand on end.”
Her daughter choked out a laugh. “You’re talking about The Monkagain, aren’t you? That’s a work of fiction, and you know it. I very much doubt that Miss Haddon or any of the pious women at the Convent of the Holy Cross are engaging in lurid activities.”
“I have already made the point that Miss Haddon is an entirely respectable young woman,” her mother replied.
“Thank you for that,” Fergus said in a dry voice.
“You’re welcome. And your sister did have the very good sense to step aside when Alasdair wished to marry my daughter. She behaved in a very mature fashion.”
She had, but their mother had almost ruined everything by trying to murder Alec when he and Donella broke their engagement. Glenna Haddon had schemed for years to marry Donella to the Earl of Riddick’s heir, and her rage when those plans were thwarted had driven her to desperate, insane measures. Only by the greatest good fortune had tragedy been averted. Fergus’ mother now resided under the care of a physician in Edinburgh, and while he visited her as often as he could, it made him sick at heart to see her slipping further into madness each time.
When he maintained his silence, Lady Reese shook her head. “Fergus, you were not to blame for those unfortunate events. It’s time you accepted that.”
He stared at her, incredulous. “That’s not what you said back then. In fact, you once called my entire family a houseful of lunatics.”
“Mamma, you didn’t,” Evelyn said with a groan.
“I was speaking figuratively,” her mother said. “I didn’t know at the time that his mother truly was insane. After all, everyone was so excessively dramatic that Mrs. Haddon’s behavior hardly stood out. Only I acted with any degree of sense whatsoever.” Lady Reese flicked a scowl in her son-in-law’s direction. “Did you say something, William?”
“No, ma’am. I simply coughed,” Will said in a bland voice.
“I do hope you’re not coming down with something. Fergus is barely over his illness, and we don’t need him to relapse.”
“I’m fine,” Fergus said through gritted teeth. “It’s been two months, and it was just a bad cold.”
“It was rather more than that,” Evelyn said with concern. “Edie was very worried about you.”
“Edie worries too much.” Still, he wouldn’t deny that the nasty infection had taken weeks to shake.
“You work too hard,” said Lady Reese, “because you’re trying to expiate your guilt and atone for your mother’s behavior.”
Fergus mentally blinked. Most days, he worked like a dog because it was the only thing that made him happy anymore. But he had to admit that Lady Reese’s analysis hit rather close to home.
“Am I right?” she asked.
He waggled a hand, reluctant to come right out and say it. It made him sound like a mawkish idiot.
“You must cease doing so,” Lady Reese continued. “No one can predict with accuracy when one’s mother is about to go on a murderous rampage.”
“Mamma, that’s a dreadful way to put it,” Evie protested.
“Dreadful but accurate,” Fergus said. “And I wasn’t exactly a model of rational behavior when I challenged Alec to a duel.”
Lady Reese snorted. “That was simply masculine stupidity. Men engage in that sort of silliness all the time. They can’t help themselves, can they, Evelyn?”
“You are so right, Mamma. I could tell you stories about Will…”
“Please don’t,” Will hastily said.
“There, you see?” Lady Reese said. “Fergus, I must insist you stop brooding about things you can’t change and begin to enjoy yourself. That’s what this house party is all about, is it not?”
House parties were a little slice of hell on earth, as far as Fergus was concerned. He would much rather tromp through some muddy pasture after wayward sheep, or have a good chew with one of the tenant farmers about the latest article on crop rotation in The Scottish Agronomist.
“I’m quite looking forward to meeting Mr. Bertram Gage,” Evelyn said. “Since he was one of Will’s particular friends in the army. I’m hoping to extract some good stories from him.”
“Trust me, love,” Will said, “there’s nothing more boring then old comrades sitting around and exchanging war stories.”
“I don’t know,” Fergus said. “The war did sound rather exciting.”
He’d spent those years helping his uncle manage the Riddick estates while Alec, the heir, had pursued a dashing career as a soldier and spy along with his partner, Will. Fergus didn’t regret his choice—Lord Riddick and the clan had needed him. But when Alec reminisced about his adventures, Fergus sometimes felt that his life in Scotland was small in comparison.
“Bloodthirsty tales are not appropriate for a lady’s ears,” Lady Reese said. “You are not to encourage them in any way, Evelyn.”
Evelyn rolled her eyes. “Yes, Mamma.”
“Besides, Mr. Gage is recently married,” her ladyship said. “He would hardly wish to speak of such things in front of his wife.”
“Probably not,” Will said. “And Bertie’s sister is rather delicate. Miss Gage was exceedingly ill last year. Almost died from pneumonia, apparently.”
Lady Reese nodded. “I believe Mr. Gage moved here so his sister could visit the nearby spa at Tunbridge Wells.” She smiled at Fergus. “Very helpful when one is recovering from a serious illness, you know.”
“I’ve never been to Tunbridge Wells,” Evelyn said. “I’m looking forward to spending a few quiet weeks here before we go home to Maywood Manor for Christmas. I’m very glad you suggested it, Mamma. We can all use a little respite.”
A disturbing suspicion began to take root in Fergus’ mind. “If I may ask, how large is the gathering at the Friar’s House?”
“You’ll be happy to hear it’s intimate,” Lady Reese said. “Just the Gage family and the four of us. After all, Miss Gage is still recuperating from her illness, as are you, Fegus.” She suddenly beamed at him. “Just think. You’ll be able to rest, drink the spa’s restorative waters, and regain your strength—all with a pleasant little companion who will not tire you out. And once we accomplish that, we’ll be more than ready to resume the search for a suitable wife.”