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.