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.
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.”