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"You don't like your mother very much, d'you, m'boy?"
Lincoln Ross Burnett, seventeenth viscount Cambury, glanced curiously at his aunt sitting across from him in the plush coach that was climbing ever higher into the Highlands of Scotland. The question wasn't surprising, at least to him. Yet it was one that would simply be ignored if asked by anyone else.
His Aunt Henry only her husband and Lincoln had ever been permitted to call her Henry was a sweet, cherubic woman in her forty-fifth year. A bit scatterbrained, but that merely made her more adorable. She was short, pudgy, and had a round face surrounded by an arch of frizzy gold curls. Her daughter, Edith, was identical, just a younger version. Neither was classically pretty, but they grew on you; each had her own endearing qualities.
Lincoln loved them both. They were his family now, not the woman who had remained in the Highlands after she'd sent him off to live with his uncle in England nineteen years ago. He'd been only ten at the time, and had been devastated to have been ripped from the only home he'd known and sent to live among strangers.
But the Burnetts didn't remain strangers. From the beginning they treated him like a son, even though they had no children yet. Edith was born the year after his arrival, and they were told, unfortunately, that she would be their one and only. So it wasn't surprising that his Uncle Richard decided to make him his heir, even changing his name so that the Burnett name would be preserved along with the title.
No, none of this should bother him a bit after all these years, but it bloody well did. He kept his bitterness firmly in hand, though at least he'd thought no one had detected it. Yet his aunt's question suggested she knew the truth.
Oddly, one of the things that Lincoln admired greatly in his aunt was that although she could bully with the best of them if it was a matter of health or welfare and he'd spent many an unnecessary extra day in his bed getting over a cold to prove it she didn't assert herself otherwise. If a matter was considered none of her business, she wouldn't try to make it her business. And how he felt about his mother was his business alone.
Nor was he inclined to own up to those feelings, and so he asked Henriette evasively, "What gives you that idea?"
"This brooding you've been doing since we left home isn't like you, and you've never been so tense nor so silent, I might add. You haven't said a word since Edith dozed off."
Thankfully, he had the perfect excuse. "I've had a lot on my mind since you announced Edith was going to have her come-out in the grand old style this season and volunteered me as her chaperone. I don't know the first bloody thing about chaperoning a young miss who's shopping for a husband."
"Nonsense, there's nothing complicated about it. And you did agree it's past time for you to do that shopping for yourself, since you've no one in particular in mind yet either. You should have already got your own family started. You've been tardy, which is fine for a man, but Edith can't afford to be. So you accomplish the same goal together. It's a brilliant plan, and you know it. You haven't changed your mind, have you?"
"Well, then, we are back to my question, aren't we?" Henriette persisted.
"No, actually, I've answered that, and if not to your satisfaction, at least be assured there is nothing for you to be concerned about."
"Nonsense," she disagreed again. "Just because I haven't nagged you about the direction you choose for your life, doesn't mean I haven't been immeasurably concerned when you've trod down the wrong paths."
"Immeasurably?" He raised a brow, accompanied with a grin he couldn't hold back.
She humphed over his amusement. "You will not dillydally around the subject thinking you can avoid it this time."
He sighed. "Very well, what else has led to this amazing assumption that I don't like my mother?"
"Possibly because you haven't visited her in nineteen years?"
It had been ripping him up, the stark beauty of the view out the coach window. His mind hadn't been playing reminiscent tricks on him all these years. The Highlands of Scotland were as wild and magnificent as he remembered and he'd missed his homeland more than even he had realized, to go by the effect that seeing it again was having on him. But even that hadn't been enough to draw him back here sooner.
"There's been no need to visit her here, since she's visited England numerous times," he pointed out.
"And you managed to be busy elsewhere most of those times," she countered.
"Unavoidable circumstance," he maintained, though her expression said she wasn't buying that either.
"I'd say pulling teeth would be easier."
"The timing was never convenient."
"Faugh, none of your reasons ever washed. Excuses all. Goodness, don't think I've ever seen you blush, m'boy. Hit the mark, did I?"
His blush, of course, just deepened, now that it had been pointed out. The increased embarrassment turned his voice quite...