Donald, The Marquess of Campbell, known as Cam to family, friends, and lovers, gripped the missive he’d received from his land steward and frowned.
It is imperative that you return to Cumberland as quickly as possible to retrieve an item of utmost importance.
Mr. David Sterns
He stared at the paper and read it over several times. No matter how hard he tried, no other words to clarify the statement appeared. He shook his head. Surely a more puzzling note did not exist. What the devil was “an item of utmost importance”?
He strode down the corridor to his bedchamber, none too happy. As he tossed items into a small satchel to make a quick trip in answer to the nebulous summons, he dwelled on the work in Parliament awaiting his attention. Although Parliament was no longer in session, having struck the final gavel for the year in June, Cam was, nevertheless, attending meetings and discussions with other members who had remained in Town. Meetings had been necessary to consider bills he was working on to assist veterans and their families. Taking the time to travel all the way to the Scottish border was frustrating. Especially when he had no idea why he was being summoned.
He had also planned to squeeze in a rousing couple of weeks of fun, frolic, women, and liquor to soothe himself, as the last of his three life-long friends had just married. While happy for the men and their newly acquired spouses, the last thing he wanted was a wife. He gripped his satchel and left the house.
Just the thought made him itchy.
After five days of travel, Cam was more than ready to end his trek. Even though he’d spent time out of the carriage and on his horse, Nettles, he wanted to sleep in his own bed, eat Cook’s food, and drink a glass of decent brandy in front of his own fireplace.
He and his valet, Markham, had traveled together in Cam’s large and comfortable coach. He had no intention of staying any longer than it took to retrieve this “package.” Even if he stayed only a few days in Cumberland, he would miss several important meetings in London.
Wearily, Cam climbed from the carriage, pressed his hands against his lower back, and stretched. He could not help the smile that covered his face as he looked at Campbell Manor. For as much as he preferred to be in London for Parliament, he loved his home estate.
The Manor staff awaited him outside, lined up to greet their master. Ralph, the head butler, introduced two new footmen. Mrs. Bromley, his housekeeper, had hired one new chamber maid. He always made it a point to greet each member of his staff and had learned their names, spouses’ names, and children—although that changed somewhat dramatically visit to visit. His servants were quite prolific in their ability to reproduce.
After they made it into the entrance hall, Cam turned to Markham. “I would like a hot bath, clean clothes, and dinner. In that order.”
Markham nodded and followed Cam into the house, giving orders to the footmen for a hot bath to be brought to the master’s bedchamber directly.
Cam took the stairs to the first floor two at a time. This comfortable home was the place he had been raised with his younger sisters, Constance and Maryann.
Cam had been a mere twenty years when his father died ten years before, leaving Cam head of the family and guardian for the young girls, who were then twelve and fourteen. After sufficient grieving time, he’d enrolled them in a fashionable boarding school in London, which allowed him to see to his Parliamentary duties and stay close to them.
At the end of their first Seasons, both girls had become betrothed and were now enjoying marital bliss, bringing children into the world at an alarming rate.
His bedchamber welcomed him, as though it had held its breath for his return. The chunky dark furniture had been his father’s, but the wall coverings, bedcovers, and draperies had been his own choosing. The deep-brown and blue print coordinated well with the dark wainscoting and blue-striped paper on the walls.
He’d kept the furniture to preserve the memory of his father, the man who’d made Cam’s childhood one miserable event after another. Beatings, starvation, and other cruel means of discipline had comprised Cam’s daily life. He wanted this reminder so he would never have children of his own and end up like his father.
His only escape from the brutality had been when he was sent to school, where he’d met Hawk, Templeton, and Bedford. They had become his family.
Cutting into his musing, footmen appeared with a large tub and buckets of steaming water, a reminder of his plan to have a bathing room installed in the house. It had been on his list of improvements for at least two years. All his time spent in London had forced him to put those projects on hold.
As he climbed into the tub and washed the road dust off, he considered not spending as much time in London. He missed it here, and there were many projects with the house he’d like to begin.
He looked around the room as he washed, dried off, and dressed. As always, he insisted on tying his own cravat, as every gentleman should do. A quick brush of his hair and he descended the stairs, cheerful to be out of the coach and ready for one of his best brandies before a delectable dinner.
He opened the door to the library, walked about two steps, and then came to a complete stop. A young woman he’d never seen before stood in the center of the room, staring at the doorway, her chin in the air. Her flashing crystal-blue eyes regarded him with a combination of fear and anger, and golden-red curls falling from her poorly constructed hairstyle landed on soft white shoulders.
The young lady’s face was perfection. High arched brows, creamy skin, a tiny nose, and full lips. Lips that looked ready for kissing. On second glance, the way they were pursed, maybe not kissing.
“Who are you?”
“I am your ward.” She placed her fisted hands on her hips. “And not happy about it.”
Bridget glowered at Lord Campbell as all the blood seemed to drain from his face. Good, she’d shocked him. Precisely how she’d felt when she learned her fate.
“My what?” The man barely got the word out. Not that she cared if he was upset. She wanted her freedom—and money—and he could go to the devil.
“Please don’t tell me you are the package I was sent to retrieve.” He glared at her. She glared back. Fine. If he was as unhappy about this arrangement as she was, then he would most likely be willing to find a solution. One that would give her leave to do as she wished.
She regarded him coolly. “I believe so. Your man told me you would most likely not come if you knew you had a ward waiting for you.”
“Smart man. And in a vast amount of trouble.” Lord Campbell strode to the sideboard and poured a brandy. “Would you care for a drink? Or perhaps send for tea?” At least he had manners.
“Tea is for invalids and old ladies. I would like a drink, but none of that sherry. Whisky. Scotch whisky.”
Although his eyebrows rose almost to his hairline, he poured the brown liquid from the bottle he held into a crystal tumbler. He re-capped the bottle—French brandy, she noted—and picked up another bottle then splashed two fingers’ worth into a second glass. He strolled across the room and handed one to her. Motioning to the settee in front of the fireplace, he said, “Sit.”
Her jaw dropped. This man is insufferable. “Is that an order, Lord Campbell?”
He sighed and dipped his head. No doubt he considered a minor nod a replacement for an apology. “Please have a seat.” He swept his hand in the direction of the settee.
Bridget settled herself and took a sip of the whisky. For all her bravado, she was shaking inside now that she finally faced her guardian.
She was ever so annoyed and angry at this turn of events. Her dear papa had died only two weeks before. At the reading of his will, she’d been astounded to find that he had left her care in the hands of The Marquess of Campbell. For three days she’d cried, railed, and, yes, cursed her beloved father.
The problem was, as his solicitor, Mr. Manning had explained with a flushed face, Papa had not changed his will in years, and the Lord Campbell he’d meant to be her guardian was this Lord Campbell’s father. Papa had not identified her guardian in any other way, therefore, by law, this young, handsome, and—from what she understood—rakish man was her guardian.
“I will begin by telling you I am more than happy to break this ridiculous arrangement and allow you to return to London and do whatever it is you do that makes the gossip columnists so very happy.” She waved a dismissive hand at him.
He narrowed his eyes. “Perhaps, before you showed your poor manners by attacking me the minute I walked into my own library, you might introduce yourself properly and explain exactly what this guardianship means.”
Oh, he is repugnant. Then as his words rolled over her, she cowered with shame. She had been quite rude, and this man was as much a victim of her father’s will as she was. But if she were to gain some control, she had to stay strong. She took a deep breath and offered him a smile. “I apologize. I did not mean to attack you. I merely wanted to advise you that I do not want, nor do I need, a guardian. My name is Lady Bridget MacDuff, I am one and twenty, and I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself.”
“Apparently, your father did not think so.” He took a sip of his drink, and she tried very hard not to notice how his lips covered the rim of the glass, making her wonder what they would feel like pressed up against her own lips. She mentally chastised herself. The man was her enemy, and she best ignore any silly attraction she felt toward him.
Her so-called guardian was a tall man and quite broad-shouldered. His curly ginger hair skimmed the top of his cravat in the back. The locks also covered his forehead, right above the greenest eyes Bridget had ever seen, surrounded by shining bronze gold–tipped eyelashes. She imagined the gossip columnists were correct and he gave many a young lady heart palpitations and something to dream about at night.
Certainly not her, though. He was her worst nightmare. “My father was getting on in years and refused to acknowledge that I was quite grown up.”
“Nevertheless, he chose to name a guardian for you. I do not know you, nor your father, so perhaps you can enlighten me on how this all came about?”
Unable to sit for long periods of time, especially when she was unsettled, she placed the now empty whisky glass on the table in front of them and stood. Lord Campbell rose as well. Yes, very good manners. But then again, anyone who spent so much time seducing the ladies must possess the very best of polished manners. And charm.
“Papa and your father were schoolmates, who apparently kept up a correspondence over the years. Although the former Lord Campbell visited our estate a few times, I don’t remember him, as I was quite young the last time he did.”
“But my father has been dead for ten years. Your father must have known that. Why was a new guardian not named?”
Bridget shrugged. “I asked Mr. Manning, Papa’s solicitor, the same question, and he told me he had urged Papa to change his will, but he always had an excuse.”
Lord Campbell wandered over to the heavy wooden desk in the center of the room and rested his hip against the edge, swinging his booted foot. No. She did not notice how his breeches tightened over his muscled thighs. “Where can I find this Mr. Manning?”
“He lives in the village near Papa’s estate.”
“Where is that?”
“Scotland. Right across the border in Dumfriesshire.”
“Scotland? I do not detect a Scottish accent.”
“I spent a few years in London, where I attended a boarding school that beat the accent out of me. Papa wanted me to enter into London Society to find a husband.”
“And did you attend a Season? I don’t remember you.”
She grinned. “No. I’ve been able to skip that torment for the past three years. I did not like London. ’Tis a dirty, smelly place, and I missed Scotland far too much.”
“What happened to your father’s estate?”
She raised her chin and scowled at the memory of the heir’s response to her summons. “A very rude second cousin from the Highlands inherited Father’s lands. He didn’t even come for a visit, just sent word that he was much too busy and would attend to the estate in a few months.”
Lord Campbell studied his empty glass. “I will contact Mr. Manning, but I’d like you to tell me the terms of this guardianship. If you are already one and twenty, I don’t understand the need for it.”
Praise the saints! Maybe the man would be gracious enough to cancel the entire thing. She nodded furiously. “I agree. Papa’s will states that I am to have a guardian until I am three and twenty. At that time, if I have not married, I will inherit his fortune.” And she had plans for that money, plans that could not wait another eighteen months.
Lord Campbell’s eyes lit up. “Married?”
Her heart sunk to her knees. Blast it. Was that joy she saw in his eyes? Surely, he would not attempt to marry her off? She sucked in a breath. Or, worse yet, force her to marry him? A rake? Someone after her inheritance, perhaps?
She blurted out, “I will not marry you.”
Once again, his brows rose to his hairline. “I am happy to hear that, Lady Bridget, considering I have no intention of marrying you. Or anybody, for that matter.”