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Robert did not wake, rather, he became aware he no longer slept, and he was not alone. His foot touched the softness of a woman’s leg. He lay in the pre-dawn semi-darkness trying to remember how he had come to have a woman in his bed. His mind, traitor that it was, deserted him.
He moved and found that a great mistake. His head split into two pieces and his stomach roiled through waves of nausea. He managed to fall off the edge of the bed and gather the chamber pot in front of him, although nothing happened. Unfortunately, the noise woke his companion.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
The sound of her burr was familiar. Robert glanced up over the bed. Light green eyes, dancing with amusement, stared back at him. Fiona? Good God, what was she doing here?
“I’m fine.” Robert leaned back on his haunches. Too late, he realized he was naked. He reached for the sheet, the sudden movement bringing bile back up into his throat. He gingerly crawled onto the featherbed and laid his head against the pillow. Damn his nakedness. He didn’t care. As old as she was, he was sure the girl had seen the unvarnished side of men before.
“May I secure you something from the kitchen?” Fiona asked. She removed herself from the bed and he heard her move through the room.
Robert opened one eye. She stood before him and he noticed her gown wrinkled beyond repair. Too many questions flitted through his mind at breakneck speed – Had she slept in her gown? Why was she here, in his house, in his bedchamber? Why was he naked and she was not? What in God’s name had happened?
“No. Thank you,” he murmured. “Forgive me for not being a better host. Pull the bell. I shall obtain you a ride home.” Robert wanted to die. Not only did his head ache, but also his other betrayed his maleness. Watching her watching him, he could not dismiss her beauty. Blue-black hair hung down her back in a free falling cape. Luminescent skin, eyes the color of celadon, and a mischievous smile, had him squirming uncomfortably on the bed. She was certainly not the same staid woman who had waited on him through negotiations with her father.
“I do not need to be taken home,” she said. “I shall walk.” She smiled and left.
Robert barely heard her. He was falling back into the arms of sleep. His last thought before he succumbed to blissful pain free slumber – how long would it take him to recover so he could begin his trip home.
Sometime in the late morning, Robert rose feeling much better. His headache had lessoned considerably, purging his body of the toxic poisons had done him great good. After his bath, he even felt he could tackle a decent breakfast. Tying a simple knot in his cravat, he looked forward to the journey back to
His father’s untimely demise the year before left Robert with his head spinning and his heart in his throat. The solicitors assured him they had everything under control, but Robert’s father, the Duke of Cantin had instilled in him a need to be a hand’s on lord. Gaining the title and all the responsibility to his family left Robert second-guessing his role as patriarch. He missed his father sorely, and his unsparing, generous advice.
So many estates, so many entailments, so many mouths to feed brought Robert to a decision. Now that Prinny had finally been seated as Regent, and he was no longer needed at Carlton House, he would spend as much time as needed at the various properties to oversee the efficiency of the parameters his father put into place. When he achieved that, he would settle in
and continue to monitor them through well-placed stewards. London
Robert’s visit to Castle Cornnan in Peebleshire was finally at an end and he couldn’t wait to get back to
. He enjoyed London , but in March, the land was still frozen, muddy, and grey. When next he came, he would make sure it was summer, when the gorse and heather were in full bloom. Scotland
Robert made his way downstairs to the study. He pulled the bell and ordered a simple meal from a footman. He would take his meal there, while working on the remaining paperwork, and then he would begin his journey home.
Signing off on the last farm records for the estate, a shouting erupted from the hallway, and Robert looked to the door. The few Scots in his employ were a quiet group, and he wondered what would cause such a ruckus. Before he could rise from his chair, the door burst open and the laird with whom he had supped the night before strode into the room, his eyes wild, bright red hair sticking straight out from his head, and a musket held in the crook of his arm.
“Who do you think ye’ are? Do ye’ think we’re all county bumpkins? I shall see you hanged for this, you filthy bastard.”
Robert arose, hands held out in supplication, unsure what the old man was spewing.
“I took it upon good faith you were a gentleman of breeding,” the old man continued. “Your father assured me you were upstanding. Now, after dealing with you, I can see his was a blind eye. Is this how you play your games now that your father is dead? You make deals for land, and not finding them to your liking, you take the virtue of my daughter, and then leave her forsaken?” He pointed the gun at Robert’s desk.
What? Robert’s mind whirled with the implication the old man had just made. “Stewart, forgive me, I know not of what you speak. Perhaps if you enlighten me in a calm manner, we might come to an understanding.” Suddenly, Robert remembered Fiona’s laughing green eyes. Oh God, what had he done? For the life of him, he couldn’t recall.
They both turned as the woman in question yelled from the doorway.
“I told you nothing happened. I do not understand why you blather so. Ask him then. Ask him what happened and he will tell you, nothing.” The dancing lights had fled her eyes and were now the color of a stormy sea.
Both father and daughter looked at him. Flummoxed, Robert remembered nothing from last night. He did not even recollect how he made it back to the castle. Haltingly, his memories from the early morning came in flashes. Fiona in his bedchamber, laughing. Him, naked on the floor, fighting off nausea and a splitting headache. Crawling back into bed. And then, nothing. Had he taken her? Damn the Scots and their infernal libations.
“Please, sit down, and we shall discuss this in a rational manner,” Robert said again. He looked at the gun, and his headache returned, slamming at his temples.
“I’ll no’ sit down until I have your ballocks in a vise,” the Laird Stewart shouted.
“Father, sit down,” Fiona said sternly.
“Please, let us try and get this sorted before I leave for
,” Robert said and moved to the two chairs by the fireplace. London
? Ach, you’ll not be goin’ anywhere until you marry my daughter.” The Laird Stewart glared at Robert, daring him to refuse. The gun now pointed at Robert’s chest. London
Robert sucked in a breath and tried to remain calm while his mind raced to get out of this insane situation. Marriage? To Fiona? Had Stewart imbibed too much of his own spirits?
“Stewart, let us be reasonable. Surely, you cannot expect me to marry….” he paused and looked at the young woman. “….Fiona, on such a flimsy excuse.” Nothing had happened between them. He was sure of it. His nakedness had nothing to do with anything.
“Flimsy excuse!” Stewart shouted. “You flirt with my daughter. Somehow, you cajole her into driving you back to your filthy castle, you defile her, and now you say ‘tis a flimsy excuse!”
Robert watched with trepidation as Stewart’s face flushed to an alarming shade of aubergine and a vein pulsated on the side of his neck. Fiona, who had been standing still in the doorway, rushed to her father and placed her hands on the gun, lowering it to the floor.
“Father, please. I told you, nothing happened. I drove him home, aye, at your insistence. He was so sodding pissed I walked him upstairs to his bedchamber. Only the Good Lord knows where his servants were. He hurled the contents of his stomach all over himself and passed out on the bed. I could not leave him unattended. What if he choked on his own vomit? What disaster would that bring, to have the Duke of Cantin dead on our doorstep? The Regent would blame you. And where would that leave us? ‘Tis your fault Stewart, not mine, and I shall not be party to your disaster.” She lowered her voice. “Leave it be, Father. He will be leaving for
and we shall never see him again.” London
“No,” Stewart said. “He shall marry you, or I shall meet him in the fields.” He shot a wild-eyed look to Robert and raised the gun again.
The girl stamped her foot. “I shall not marry him. He’s a bloody Englishman!”
“You shall marry him, I say. This afternoon before he leaves.”
Robert watched the two glower at each other. Marrying her was out of the question. She was certainly beautiful, but he was a duke. His title brought forth all manner of prerequisites in a future bride, and this girl seemed to have none of which he required. Meeting with the Laird during the last few weeks to discuss the details of their related sheep and farming interests, she had always been present, but he could not say he had ever given her more than a cursory glance. Her father treated her like a servant, and for the most part, so had Robert. Dear Lord, his poor mother would have an apoplectic fit if he brought this girl home as a bride. No, he had to get out of this.
“Stewart,” Robert said. “You must believe your daughter. Nothing happened. I apologize profusely for lack of holding my liquor. However, I did not lay a finger on her. I appreciate her care of me in my damaged state,” he nodded to the girl. “But to marry her over such a blatant faux pas is hardly worth credit. Surely, we may come to some sort of agreement.”
“Oh aye, there will be an agreement all right. She will become your duchess or you shall die.”
The threat held cold gravity that Robert could not shake. Staring at the gun, he knew Stewart would use it. He’d heard tales of some Highlanders’ ideas of justice and they weren’t pretty.
“Stewart, you must be reasonable. I cannot marry her. What will it take? Five thousand pounds? Ten? Twenty? Give me a figure and I shall have my solicitor in
arrange for the funds.” Robert threw the last straw onto the pile, but didn’t realize it would be the one that broke the camel’s back. Fiona walked over to him and slapped him, hard, across the face. Edinburgh
“You filthy pig! How dare you!” Her eyes blazed. “You think you can buy your way out of this, is that it? With all your grand English refinements, you’re nothing more than the dirt underneath my feet.” She stood in front of Robert, staring daggers, her breath coming in heaving gasps.
Robert noticed her trembling. She was angry, yes, but he saw fear underneath the rage. Fear that she would have to marry Robert and didn’t want to, or fear what would happen if she did not.
“Forgive me,” Robert said softly. “That was uncalled for. I did not mean to cast aspersions on your person. That was not my intention. Obviously, we are at an impasse.”
“There is no impasse, Cantin,” Stewart said. “You will marry Fiona this afternoon before you leave for
. Either that, or you die.” He raised the gun again. London
A cold sweat broke across Robert’s forehead. He looked from the old man to the girl. There was no way out of this he could see. He had to marry her. He was honor bound, duty bound, and title bound. He was thankful his father wasn’t alive. This would break his heart.
“Very well, Stewart. Find your priest and have your daughter packed and ready to leave for
within the hour.” London
Fiona gasped. “I will not marry you. Are you daft?” She looked to her father. “Take the money, old man. Twenty thousand pounds is not too high a price to pay for my virtue.”
Stewart laughed and Robert knew the old man realized just how much his daughter’s virtue was worth.
Robert gazed down at her frightened face. “I am sorry, my dear. It seems we do not have a choice.”