The Highlander's Yuletide Love

BOOK: The Highlander's Yuletide Love
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The Highlander’s Yuletide Love

By Alicia Quigley

Text
copyright © 2015 Alicia Quigley

All
Rights Reserved

 

Sophy’s story is dedicated to family: the ones we’re born into and
the ones we choose along the way.

Chapter 1

Lady Sophia
Learmouth and Lady Exencour made their way out of Somerset House and into the brilliant
late May sunshine. Sophy blinked, glad for the deep poke bonnet that shielded
her face. Her companion laced an arm through hers as they turned their steps
away from the pillared entryway and out of the courtyard.

“Thank you so
much for accompanying me to the Royal Academy summer exhibition, Isobel,” said
Sophy. “You know that poor Mama would have been bored to tears. She would have
come if I had insisted, but I hate to torture her that way.”

“I’m only too
happy to indulge you, my dear,” said Isobel cheerfully. “It is the least I can
do after your assistance last summer sketching my excavations. Though, truth to
tell, I fear I am somewhat of the same mind as dear Harriet. Sophy, how do you
manage to tell one picture from another?”

Sophy’s eyes
widened. “Whatever do you mean? I--I look at them. They are very different in
subject, style, and feel. Why do you ask?”

“With so many of
them in one place, hung cheek by jowl, and almost from the floor to the
ceiling, I found it difficult to tell one from another. It was rather like the
pieces of a jigsaw puzzle before they have been assembled.”

Sophy gazed at
her, bemused. “Do you truly not see them the vast differences between them, or
do you merely exaggerate?”

“My dear, there
are nearly two hundred of them crammed into that space!” Isobel exclaimed. “Of
course I realize that some are landscapes and some are portraits, I’m not such
a fool as that, but it looked like a jumble of colors all up and down and along
the walls, punctuated with gilt frames.”

 “Would that be
similar to the way that I feel when I look at a jumble of broken stones in an
earthen pit, and you earnestly explain to me that they are the footings of a Roman
bath?” replied Sophy teasingly.

Lady Exencour
laughed. “Touché, my love. I suppose it is precisely the same thing. I should
be grateful that I have you to explain the paintings, for those broken stones
make a great deal more sense to me!”

They had emerged
onto the Strand, and Isobel looked about for their carriage. Seeing it a short
way down the road, she waved, and the women began to move towards it as her
coachman urged the horses to a walk. Moments later, a liveried footman was
opening the glossy black lacquer door of an elegant barouche bearing the
Strancaster arms, and letting down the steps for the ladies.

Once they were
ensconced in the dark green velvet upholstery Isobel, Viscountess Exencour cast
a shrewd look at Lady Sophia.

“Sophy dear, I
think you have finally made me understand what your painting means to you, and
that you see things that others do not.”

“What, by
telling you that I see a jumble of stones in the bottom of a pit?”

“Quite so, and
it crushes me to hear you say it,” Isobel replied, but a warm smile belied the
words.

“Oh dear.” Sophy
glanced at Isobel from the corner of her eye. “Does that mean that you no
longer wish me to sketch your progress to document the location of important
features?”

“Of course not,
you wretch!” Isobel slapped her hand playfully. “What would I do without you? It
would be far more difficult for me to describe the site in my papers. It
appears that our interests are very compatible; you are able to hone your
sketching skills, and I have a record of my work.” She looked around. “What a
lovely afternoon it is.”

“It is pleasant
to see the sun after the tiresome rain of the last two days,” Sophy agreed. “I
thought I should never be able to go outside and paint again.”

“Shall I have
the coachman drive through the park before I take you home?” proposed Isobel. “It
is the hour of the promenade, and you never know who we might see.”

“I would adore
it. The exhibition was wonderful, but the crush in the room was dreadful. It
would be nice to spend some time enjoying this beautiful day,” Sophy replied.

Isobel conveyed
their new direction to the coachman, and talk ceased for a few moments as he
threaded his way through the busy London traffic. Isobel appeared to be
pondering their earlier conversation, for she turned again to her friend. “It
occurs to me that if I have underestimated what your craft means to you, your
family may have also,” she said.

“Indeed they
have.” Sophy’s voice was pensive. “But, in fairness, I think perhaps I have as
well. At home in Scotland, after I outgrew Mama’s instruction, I mostly taught
myself how to paint, and saw only the artwork at Glencairn, which is remarkably
fine, though I had no idea of that at the time. But since I have been in London
these past three seasons and have taken lessons from Mrs. Pope, and seen the
paintings at the Royal Academy salons and in the homes of my parents’ friends,
I have realized that I too may be capable of creating great art, and not merely
the charming little pictures that any lady of quality dabbles in.” She paused a
moment. “And I wish to try--more than anything, I wish to try.”

“Is this why I
have recently heard from your stepmama about concerns she and Glencairn share
that you will never find a gentleman you wish to marry?”

“Oh, has she
told you about that?” Sophy asked naïvely.

“Of course she
has, you silly girl. What doting mother, for Harriet loves you thoroughly,
would not be concerned? For three years you have been the toast of London, yet you
remain unwed.”

“But she lived
with you as your companion for many years before she married Papa, and you were
unwed until you were six-and-twenty. Surely she must understand what it is to
have an interest in something other than dancing, dresses, and marrying well.”

“I didn’t
understand your desires until this moment, even though I spend a great deal of
time with you,” Isobel pointed out. “Sometimes those closest to us are the most
blind. Harriet, for all that she is so kind, is also a very conventional lady
and won’t have wanted to consider such a possibility.”

Sophy grimaced. “I
know. It will be difficult to convince them to allow me to pursue my painting,
but surely you can help? Harriet has known you so long and trusts you--you can
explain it to her, can you not?”

“I can try, my
love,” Isobel replied. “But I am not your mother or guardian, so I would not wish
to give offence by meddling in Learmouth family matters. I will, however, tell
Harriet that I think that your art is not merely a passing fancy but a lifelong
passion, like mine for ancient Roman history. I don’t know if that will serve
to reconcile her, but I will do what I can.”

As the barouche
rolled into the leafy green confines of the Park, Isobel sat back with a sigh. “It’s
so nice to be out of the noise and dirt of the streets. Sometimes I wonder why
I bother with the crowds of the Season at all, rather than staying at Kitswold
or Exencour until it is time to go to Scotland.”

Sophy laughed. “Surely
the meeting of the Royal Society would be enough to draw you to London?”

Isobel gave her
a rueful look. “Well, there is that. I fear I am compelled to meet with other
scholars, and London is the only place for that.”

It was the
fashionable hour of the promenade, and all around them the cream of London
society swirled, the ladies glowing in their finest walking dresses, strolling arm
in arm or riding in elegant carriages, while the men tooled their phaetons or
rode well-bred horses. They circled one another, now and then stopping to
converse, all eager to learn of the latest scandal or fashion.

Isobel tucked
her arm through Sophy’s. “I think we shall outshine all the other ladies here
this afternoon,” she teased.

Sophy took in
Isobel’s elegant appearance in her plumed bonnet and emerald green pelisse worn
over a pale yellow muslin gown. “You look fine indeed, but Miss Durand has been
acclaimed the beauty of this Season, and I fear we cannot challenge her,” she
laughed.

Isobel made a
wry face. “That simpering nitwit? I’ve never understood what Society sees in
her. Let us enjoy our drive all the same.”

Their carriage
moved some ways down the path, the ladies nodding here and there to an
acquaintance, and even stopping once or twice to talk briefly. Suddenly Isobel
gave a little start.

“There is
Colonel Stirling!” she said. “How very surprising. I haven’t seen him for an
age. Francis will be delighted to know that he is in Town.”

As it would be
bad
ton
to display her very real pleasure at seeing a friend, she waved
rather languidly at a tall gentleman some distance down the path from them. He
clearly saw and recognized the occupant of the barouche, and, nodding at the
gentleman he was conversing with, made his way towards Isobel’s carriage.

As he drew
nearer, Sophy noted the breadth of his shoulders, his narrow waist, and the
powerful thighs under his fawn-colored pantaloons. His gait had the ease of an
athlete, and she perceived as he reached the barouche that he was very
handsome; a strong jaw, straight nose, golden brown eyes, and cropped black
hair were set off by the elegant tailoring of his black coat, his perfectly
arranged neckcloth, and gold-tasseled Hessians which he appeared to have been
born in, so closely did they fit about the ankle.

Despite his
attractiveness, Sophy also perceived an aura of arrogance surrounding him, as
though he held himself aloof from his fellows, but it was countered by an air
of confident masculinity that was extremely appealing. As he sauntered towards
them, she was confused by the conflicting impressions that flooded her. She
tried to imagine painting such a man; one whose surface was so alluring, yet
who also possessed an inner chilliness, and found her mind awash in ways of
translating such conflicting impressions into images. As a result, when Colonel
Stirling arrived beside the barouche and Isobel introduced him, she found
herself in a state of confusion.

“Lady Sophia
Learmouth, may I present Colonel Stirling? He is a dear friend of Exencour’s,”
she heard Isobel say.

The Colonel
bowed elegantly. “It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintance, Lady Sophia. I
believe I have encountered your father upon occasion.”

Sophy did her
best to bring her thoughts back to the moment. “Oh thank you, Colonel Stirling.
I’m delighted to be sure.”

She flushed slightly
at her nonsensical response, and saw with a twinge of annoyance that Colonel
Stirling, whose face had shown a touch of curiosity, now assumed a look of
bland politeness. He had clearly dismissed her as a foolish girl beneath his
notice, and the thought stung.

Isobel stepped
in, drawing the colonel’s attention. “Have you been long in London? I hadn’t
heard from Exencour that you were here, and I feel certain he would have
mentioned it if he had encountered you. He speaks often of you, you know.”

A smile glimmered
on the colonel’s lips. “No, Lady Exencour, I have missed much of the Season, and
seldom venture to London of late. After the death of my older brother this past
year, I decided it would be best to spend some time in Scotland with my father,
learning more about the estate. I shall have to sell out, I suppose, if I am to
be the next laird.”

“My condolences,
Colonel Stirling. You must feel the loss of your brother deeply,” Sophy said
gently.

Ranulf switched
his gaze from Isobel to her companion, and looked at Sophy closely for the
first time. Her charming bonnet made of chip, trimmed with a garland of pink silk
roses and matching silk gauze ribbons framed an expressive face, with large
blue eyes fringed by dark lashes and a mouth that was full, yet surprisingly
firm. Dark curls peeked out from under her hat, emphasizing the slim column of
her neck. He raised his eyebrows.

“Why would you
think I must necessarily miss my brother, Lady Sophia?” he asked, his voice
faintly mocking. “My chief memories are of him teasing me mercilessly when we
were boys, and as I embarked on a military career over a dozen years ago, I’ve
seen little of him since.”

A spark of
annoyance lit Sophy’s eyes. “I was being polite, and attempting to sympathize,
Colonel Stirling, as you doubtless know. But I can tell you that I have a
brother as well, and, as much as I wish to throttle him from time to time, if
he were to suddenly disappear from my life, I would be heartbroken,” she
replied, a touch of acid in her voice.

The smile grew
broader, and Sophy blinked as the colonel’s handsome face grew even more
attractive. “Well said, Lady Sophia. I do indeed miss my brother a great deal,
if only because his death makes me take on the responsibilities of the family
lands.”

Isobel glanced
from Sophy to the colonel, her eyes alight with curiosity. “Colonel Stirling’s
father is the Laird of Spaethness,” she said.

Sophy received
the information with apparent disinterest. “Are you from the Highlands, then?”

“Yes, Spaethness
is in Argyll, hidden away in the Grampians,” he replied. “We are wild Highlanders
through and through.”

 “No wild man
out of the glens has his coats made by Weston, as yours clearly is, or wears boots
with a shine such as yours,” said Sophy dryly.

BOOK: The Highlander's Yuletide Love
12.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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