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.