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An elegant luggage-laden traveling carriage crawled along the Great North Road to Inverness. Pale green and heavily gilded, this whimsical equipage had often aroused amused comment in the crowded streets of London, and the less sophisticated Highlanders who were privileged to witness its passage blinked several times and stared again.
The coach's owner thrust her shining red-gold head through the carriage window. Lady Philippa Harte had scant interest in the reflections of legendarily dour Scotsmen; she was as little likely to wonder what the world thought of her decidedly eccentric trappings as she was to concern herself with the world's opinion of her even more outrageous conduct. "More speed, I beg you, Barnabas!"
Lady Philippa, known to her somewhat irreverent intimates as Pippin, was a striking creature with fair, flawless skin and slanting emerald eyes. Her mouth was too generous for beauty, her aristocratic nose was flawed by a small but undeniable bump half-way down its length, and there was a tiny but unmistakable gap between her dazzling front teeth; but these small imperfections were outweighed by high cheekbones, curling masses of reddish-gold hair, and those startling green eyes.
"Very good, my lady," replied the coachman, gloomily. This individual was almost as noteworthy as his mistress, and not just for his masterful handling of the reins. Barnabas Parrington, as many a serving-wench between London and Inverness could testify, was almost indecently handsome, with the sort of somber brooding looks that have, since time immemorial, played havoc with feminine hearts.
Pippin withdrew into the coach. "Tiresome creature! I do wish he'd come out of thesulks." She frowned at her companion. "Not that I can blame him! It is clearly midsummer moon with Barnabas, and you treat him abominably."
The coach's other occupant wrinkled her nose. A pert young miss of eighteen years, sandy-haired and hazel-eyed, she was clad in the height of fashion, a Jubilee cloak of violet velvet trimmed in swansdown. Atop her saucy curls perched a charming cottage hat. Beside her on the wide seat was a large wicker basket. "Barney's a slow-top. But he's a top-sawyer with four-in-hand, I'll give him that. What puzzles me is why he's so close-mouthed about himself." The girl's eyes widened pleasurably. "Lady Philippa, mayhap he's been in quod!"
A more sensitive woman might have shrieked at so unservile an attitude and so improper a suggestion; Pippin merely smiled. If it was highly improper to converse with one's servants in the same unreserved manner that one might adopt with a social peer, this was not the least of her flights from propriety. "Barnabas's past is none of our concern, whether he's been in prison or no. Understand this, Nabby: I'll not have the poor man plagued. Barnabas is the best of my retainers, and I do not know how I would go on without him."
Nabby suffered this stern set-down with no discernible lessening of spirit. "Aye, I'm being cheekish. Barney's a good lad, for all he's wild to a fault." She winked at her mistress. "But I won't be talking of that to you! Most improper it would be."
"Gracious!" said Lady Philippa, but with more curiosity than dismay. "Do you mean to tell me that the rogue has offered you a slip on the shoulder?"
"No." Though Nabby would have indignantly refused an improper proposal, she would have enjoyed the experience immensely. "Not me or anybody else, as far as I know." And she would have known, for Nabby had a positive genius for ferreting out information of that sort. "'Twas something else altogether I was referring to."
"What, you wretched creature?" It was, of course, not at all the thing for a lady to engage in a discussion, with her abigail, of her coachman's amours; but Pippin had once been described by a sporting gentleman of her acquaintance as a filly with a queer kick in her gallop, and by another disgruntled suitor, whose hunting pursuits were conducted in a different field, as possessing the tongue of a vituperative virgin and the soul of a fille de joie.
Nabby's eyes twinkled mischievously. "You yourself told me we shouldn't pester poor Barney, just minutes past."
"The devil fly away with you, Abigail Wiggins!" retorted Pippin, without heat. Nabby grinned.
Despite her apparent lack of proper respect for the lady who paid her extremely generous wage, Nabby was utterly devoted to her mistress. A discerning miss of no little wit, Nabby knew that she held her current exalted position, no small accomplishment for one of her tender years, entirely to the happy chance that Lady Philippa was fond of her. The relationship was a long-standing one, dating back to the day when Lady Philippa's mother, a philanthropic and absent-minded widow, now deceased, had introduced Nabby into her somewhat irregular household, and the young Pippin had promptly enlisted the newcomer as her personal maid. It was an act that neither of them had ever found cause to regret; and as Nabby gave thanks daily for the whim that had prompted the humanistic Lady Harte to rescue her from a dank horror-filled prison, where she had been sentenced to expiate her offence of shoplifting, so did she also offer thanksgiving to the Deity for the greater boon of granting her a mistress so unaware of her own consequence as Lady Philippa. Nabby would cheerfully have allowed herself to be boiled in oil for her mistress's sake. Fortunately, Lady Philippa had thus far demanded no such sacrifice.
Her ladyship, who would have been rendered acutely uncomfortable by knowledge of the exact extent of her maid's devotion, was currently squinting at an exquisitely hand-drawn map. It was a measure of Nabby's devotion that she had accompanied Lady Philippa on this long and arduous jaunt. True, they had traveled in easy stages, and the coach was unusually well-sprung; but much as Nabby might enjoy racketing around the countryside, the trek between London and the Scottish Highlands was a bit extreme. Nor was Nabby enamored of the countryside, which was wild and haunted, the light such as Nabby had never before seen. Constantly changing combinations of sun, cloud, and mist endowed the mountains and lochs, the glens and tarns, with an unholy eeriness. Nabby would have much preferred to remain in London, skillfully preparing her mistress for appearances in Hyde Park, at Almack's, or Carlton House; but it was the time of year when the haut ton retired from town to country seats or watering places. Because Lady Philippa was a connoisseur of such unearthly scenes as the Highlands offered in abundance, Nabby voiced only minimal complaint. It was best that she keep both her wayward mistress and the devastating Barnabas under her sharp eye.
A sleepy yowl issued from the wicker basket, and Nabby opened the lid to release a large and malevolent-looking brindled cat. The huge creature stretched and yawned, then rose on strong back legs to peer out the carriage window. Finding the passing countryside of negligible interest, he leaped to the opposite seat and deposited himself on his mistress's lap, to the detriment of the map. "Not much longer, Udolpho," murmured Lady Philippa, rescuing the chart. "If Amanda's directions are correct."
Not likely, thought Nabby skeptically. Lady Amanda Viccars, her employer's dearest friend, was a frivolous flibbertigibbet whose keen eye for a comely gentleman was equaled only by her fine disregard for such unessential details as village names and inconsequential roads. It was a matter of some puzzlement to Nabby why Lady Amanda had them haring off to the Highlands, but she admitted the journey was well timed. A nasty scandal was brewing in London, and Lady Philippa was best away.
Nabby regarded her mistress with a doting eye, and her mistress's cat with a trifle less opprobrium. Udolpho--the possessor of a vast amount of mottled black and orange fur, a nose that was half black and half orange, paws and a tail tip of solid black, deep orange eyes, and a fiendish temperament--was a source of local wonder greater even than Lady Philippa's unusual coach. His fond owner had this day made an unusual concession to fashion and wore a charming dress and pelisse of a shade of green that matched her magnificent eyes. The elegant bonnet that completed the ensemble, however, had been tossed carelessly on the floor, and Lady Philippa's curls were in riotous disarray.
Nabby's lips tightened as she thought once more of their hasty departure from town. Even she lacked sufficient temerity to mention to her mistress the Marquis, though she dearly longed to ask if Lady Philippa regretted the abrupt termination of that particular flirtation and her impending involvement in an extremely unsavory divorce. Nabby contemplated her own neatly gloved hands. It was her dearest wish to see her employer happily and safely wed, but Lady Philippa proved decidedly unmanageable on that score. Countless were the opportunities that she had turned down, among them one of the wealthiest men in England, and now, at five-and-twenty, despite the flirtations for which she was notorious, she could well be considered at her last prayers.
Even though Nabby had recently bloodied a kitchen maid's nose for referring to the mistress as an ape-leader, the little abigail privately considered it the melancholy truth. It would be miraculous indeed if Lady Philippa contracted a marriage at so advanced an age and with a reputation that was frankly scandalous.
Perhaps here in the wilds of Scotland there would be a gentleman for whom Lady Philippa might develop a partiality, one who might never have heard of her various escapades. Nabby had whispered a quiet little prayer into the wishing well at Culloden Moor, and tied a piece of her petticoat to a nearby tree, all the time knowing she had as little hope of seeing her mistress peacefully settled in matrimony as Bonnie Prince Charlie had had of restoring his father to the English throne. Lady Philippa was without heart where the gentlemen were concerned.
In this Nabby was mistaken: Pippin indeed possessed a heart, for all she kept it securely locked away. Nor was she unaware of her maid's aspirations in her behalf. However, as she squinted at the finely drawn map, thoughts of her own romances were the farthest thing from her mind. Lady Philippa had once, in a moment of spleen, taken up her pen and with it ripped the ton to shreds; and so successful was that initial effort that she had recently delivered to her discreet publisher her sixth novel. Pippin scribbled romantic effusions, strongly interlaced with the supernatural, which alternately titillated and terrified her reading audience, the polite world into which she had been born. Of all her secrets, this was the best kept. It was not to be expected that the Upper Ten Thousand would equate the popular, if extremely retiring, novelist, Mrs. Watson-Wentworth, with the unconventional Lady Philippa Harte--nor did they. Unhampered, Pippin cheerfully continued to blacken the characters of her peers; enchanted, they continued to clamor for further punishment.
But Pippin was not totally without feeling for her fellowman, and she noticed that her abigail had not only fallen silent but looked remarkably serious. "You are unusually quiet," she said, abandoning the map. "What has cast you into gloom?" On her lap, Udolpho rumbled and vibrated like a minor earthquake.
"Not a thing in the world." Still lost in wild speculation concerning the Marquis, Nabby restored Lady Philippa's neglected bonnet to a semblance of its original splendor. "It's that tired I am of traveling, and I'll be glad to see it end."
"Soon," Pippin promised rashly and turned to gaze through the window upon purple-blue heather moors. Udolpho leaped to her shoulder and settled there, his tail draped around her neck like a magnificent boa, albeit of startling hue. The solitude of this beautiful countryside suited Pippin, particularly after that all-too-public encounter with a certain irate Marchioness, whose voice was quite as stentorian and forceful as a cannon's boom. Here, however, one heard only the burn that gurgled down the hillside, and the far-off bleating of sheep. "Marvelous," she said aloud.
Nabby, observing the fervent gleam in her mistress's eye, remained prudently silent. Lady Philippa was a zealous sightseer, and Nabby already had a bellyful of historic sites.
Pippin turned away from the window and gazed upon her abigail's woebegone expression with amusement, while Udolpho teetered wildly but maintained his balance via the extension of all his claws. Pippin winced, and he purred.
"Tell me again of this place we're going," Nabby said quickly, for her capricious mistress was quite capable of ordering an impromptu alfresco party on the spot, with the sorely tried Barnabas sent to harvest suitable provisions from an astonished, and not particularly hospitable, countryside. "It sounds a gruesome spot."
"Strachan is one of Scotland's less hallowed monuments." Pippin removed Udolpho from his perch and settled herself more comfortably upon the seat, an act that revealed a shapely ankle and an immodest amount of equally shapely bosom. "A tiny village, it remains much as it was during the infamous witch trials that caused its ill fame over two hundred years ago. How Amanda learned of it, I do not know, but she waxed enthusiastic over the coaching-inn and took steps to assure our welcome there."
"Witches," repeated Nabby, and twitched her cloak disdainfully. "Flapdoodle!"
"Legend claims for the village a witch's curse. Complete nonsense, perhaps, but interesting." Despite the grisly horrors, including headless corpses and clanking chains and haunted crypts, with which she spiced her macabre tales, Pippin was of a sensible turn of mind, a fact that she secretly mourned. "But you will agree Strachan sounds an ideal place for ruralizing. We shall have peace and quiet in plenty."
Not if Nabby knew her mistress. No enthusiast of bucolic settings, she gave the bonnet's brim a rather vicious tweak. "Peace and quiet, is it? You'll be off on one of your queer starts in no time."
Impervious both to pertness and censure, Pippin stroked the cat on the seat beside her. He sank his teeth into her glove. "You make me sound like some hey-go-mad shatterbrain."
Not a shatterbrain, perhaps, but definitely hey-go-mad. "I'll make you a wager," Nabby retorted, in a last-ditch attempt to dissuade her mistress from further ruinous shenanigans. "We shan't be there a sennight before you've fallen into a scrape."
"You may save your wages. I mean to be very, very good. And if your prunish countenance suggests that you doubt I know how to go about it, I warn you I shall consider it the grossest impertinence!"
Doubtfully, Nabby met her employer's laughing gaze. Lady Philippa glanced through the window. "Strachan," she said, with satisfaction, and Nabby peered cautiously outside. White-washed cottages were interspersed with the thatched stone buildings that lined the narrow streets, among them a venerable church. Above the village towered an ancient castle whose worn grandeur made all else shrink into insignificance. "How peaceful," sighed Lady Philippa, with a genteel weariness that didn't deceive her abigail for an instant. "We shall all have a delightful rest."
Deftly avoiding sharp and extended claws, Nabby lifted the reluctant Udolpho from the seat and deposited him in the wicker basket. "Did I not tell you," inquired Lady Philippa of her suddenly pensive maidservant, "that we would arrive soon?"
But Pippin was no favorite of Fate. She had barely placed the mistreated bonnet upon her unruly curls when the coach gave a mighty lurch, several bone-jarring jolts, and came at last to rest in a shallow ditch.