Uncle's carriage—or rather the Roseberry Hall landau—had fared better when it veered off the road, although its cargo had not. A large box, which must have been on the seat beside him, had slid to the ground, throwing the cover and contents into the rill. It was to this that Uncle Arthur was pointing when Lydia hastened toward him.
"There, Lydia, I hope you are happy. I was bringing you a surprise, a pretty little peace offering, a gift for your birthday. And you ruined it. Yet again your obstinacy and disregard for anyone but yourself has brought about a disaster."
Other than slowing her pace, Lydia did not know how to react to such a speech. It was laden with so much injustice that she could only stare in wonderment and question Uncle's grasp of reality. The accident had not been her doing; it had been his excessive speed. Had the road been clear of pedestrians or other carriages, his speed would still have made negotiating the turn without mishap near impossible.
Then there was his reference to obstinacy and disregard for others. Never had she been so accused. Her sister, Ivy—who was as stubborn as the day was long—carried that trait proudly on her ten-year-old shoulders. And as to disregard for others—well, perhaps he should look in the mirror, for he himself wore that characteristic, and it fit like a glove.
As to the peace offering/surprise/birthday gift, well, that, too, made no sense. It could not be all three things at once.... And to make matters worse, the gift was nothing more than an allusion to what he perceived as her immaturity. For as Lydia's gaze followed the pointing finger, she saw that a large, exquisitely dressed
porcelain doll stared up at her with its one unbroken eye. This was not a present for a young lady about to turn eighteen but for a girl of ten or eleven. In short, it was a mockery.
Anger and insult fought for supremacy and control of her tongue, leaving Lydia momentarily at a loss for words. Fortunately, Uncle was too wrapped up in his own emotional swirl to take advantage of Lydia's unusual speechless state.
"There. It's all yours. I hope you enjoy it," Uncle Arthur shouted in hypocrisy. And then with a great huff, and in complete indifference to the young man he had just run off the road, her uncle dropped back onto the seat and flicked the reins. Esme and Turnip reacted immediately, trotting through the Roseberry Hall gates and quickly disappearing down the long drive.
"I am terribly sorry your, um, present has been ruined."
Lydia started. She had momentarily forgotten about the stranger and looked up with surprise. Finding him standing a little too close, Lydia back-stepped off the side of the road and would have rolled her ankle had he not reached out to steady her.
It was all so naturally done that when she met his eyes, she was comforted rather than embarrassed by his touch. "I'm sorry," he said again, only this time Lydia was certain he was referring to scaring her rather than sympathizing about the disastrous doll.
The well-dressed gentleman looked to be twenty at most, with dark, wavy hair brushed forward in a windswept look. The style served to accent his square jaw and Grecian nose. A classic example of tall, dark, and handsome, and yet it was his eyes that were his most arresting feature. It wasn't the color—for they were an ordinary shade of brown—or the shape. No, it was the emotion emanating from them. Deep set under heavy brows, his kindness shone through, blanketing her, filling her with the calm she had struggled for not minutes earlier.
"Charming fellow. Relative of yours?" The stranger jerked his head toward the gates. "Seems a might dicked in the nob."
"Yes, I'm afraid I have to claim him. An uncle—my mother's brother."
"Drives like a demon, but he did bring you a present." Pivoting, they both stared back down at the figure on the soggy ground. "Very nice of him. Do you collect dolls? Large, frilly ones?"
The poor thing was covered in mud, the delicate lace dress was ripped, and the right side of its face was smashed. There would be no recovery from this accident.
"I'm afraid she's quite done for."
His words sounded so tragic that Lydia looked up to reassure him...and noticed his laughing eyes. "I think the doll was not bought out of charity but spite—meant to put me in my place, so to speak. Reestablish the pecking order," she said with no little asperity.
"Not terribly subtle."
"No, but then tact and delicacy have never found a home in Uncle." Lydia didn't usually speak so freely.