Caught by the Scot
Conner Douglas slammed his glass onto the heavy oak table. “Bloody hell, nae! I will nae do it!”
Lachlan Hamilton, the Duke of Hamilton and Conner’s brother-in-law, stared out the castle window at the rocky cliff overhanging the cold, gray sea. “?’Tis nae a question,” he said shortly.
Conner knew what lay on that cliff. Under a giant oak was a grave, the dirt freshly turned from the burial they’d attended not an hour ago.
Och, Anna, why did you leave us? A wave of grief hit Conner like a hammer and he had to swallow twice before he could even breathe. His only sister, gone. “Hamilton, ’tis too soon. You cannae expect us to—”
“I do and I will,” Hamilton snapped with a look of blazing fury. “You and your brothers will find wives within the next three months or you’ll nae touch a penny of your inheritances.”
“You’ve nae that authority.” Jack’s voice was heavy with rage.
Conner eyed his oldest brother with unease. Jack was
not called “the Black Douglas” for naught; his temper was as dark as his midnight hair.
“I am the executor of your sister’s will,” the duke said grimly. “Do as Anna wished and find wives, and I’ll grant you each your portion of the inheritance. Guid wives, too—nae tavern maids, nae actresses, and nae soiled doves, but women of quality like your sister.”
Conner ground his teeth in anger, not just at the terms of the will, but at life. One week ago he, Declan, and Jack had sailed here, to the Isle of Arran, in high spirits after receiving word that their sister Anna was delivering her baby. They’d expected to be met at the dock by their brother-in-law, jubilant with news of a bonnie lad or lassie. Instead the butler awaited, his pale face and trembling mouth delivering his wretched news for him.
Conner curled his hands into fists and pressed them into his thighs to stop the pain. Anna, who had raised all three of them when their parents had died eighteen years ago in a carriage accident, was gone.
God, Anna, what am I—we—to do without you? His eyes burned and he swiped at them with an impatient hand. He and his brothers had been blessed with a strong, capable sibling who had become more mother than sister. And even though he’d been on his own for years, without her, he was as lost as a ship without a rudder.
Declan scowled at Hamilton. “Three months to find a wife? ’Tis nae long enough.”
“Then make it four months, but nae a day more. And dinnae argue, for I’m being generous in giving you that.” The duke turned from the window and planted his feet,
facing his three brothers-in-law. “So go. The lot of you. And dinnae come back until you’ve properly wed.”
“Nae,” Jack snapped. “You’re trying to force us to bend to your wishes, nae Anna’s.”
The look Hamilton gave Jack was as bleak as night. “You think I give a damn aboot any of you? If I had my way, I’d give you your blasted portions and send you off so you’d bother me nae more. But Anna wanted you settled and thought this would serve.” He glowered at them all. “Do as your sister asked, or the family fortune will be distributed to others.”
Conner picked up his glass of whisky. “I’ve never wished for the damned money, anyway. Keep it.”
Jack’s dark look disappeared at Conner’s words. “We’ve made our own way withoot it. Why would we wish for it now?”
Hamilton’s brows climbed, and he said in a suddenly silky tone, “Indeed? You’d have the Douglas fortune gifted to the Campbells, then?”
Conner choked on his whisky. “The Campbells? They’re our greatest enemies!”
“Are you daft?” Declan demanded.
Hamilton fixed a frosty gaze on them. “I’m doing as Anna asked, unpleasant as ’tis. She was tired of your spendthrift ways—”
“We pay our own way, and always have,” Conner protested.
“Aye, through pirating and thievery and smuggling,” the duke snapped, his jaw set. “Nae to mention the gambling and whoremongering and scandals. Nae wonder Anna despaired of you.”
A twinge of guilt hit Conner. Anna had always worried; but wasn’t that what sisters did?
“Come, Hamilton, dinnae be hasty,” Declan said in a soothing tone. “Anna’s death is—” His voice broke, but he swallowed hard, and added in a husky voice, “None of us are oop to facing life right now. Let’s nae make any decisions whilst we’re struggling to catch our breaths. Give us a few months to think aboot this, to find a way to answer her wishes.”
“She said three months, and oot of respect for your grief, I’ve added a month. But that is all I’ll give you and it’s bloody well all I’ll say aboot it.” Hamilton waved a hand. “Go. And dinnae return until you’ve done as Anna wished.”
Declan spread his hands. “Hamilton, be reasonable. We just need—”
“Reasonable?” Hamilton’s voice was quiet, yet it thundered through the study. “I just lost my wife, the only woman I ever loved, or will love, and I’m left with a babe to raise on my own. Right now, the whole world is cold, cruel, and bloody unreasonable.” His gaze flickered over all of them. “Now go. Dinnae marry and I’ll give your funds to the Campbells. I dinnae care who has it.”
“Hell will freeze before a Campbell touches Douglas gold!” Furious, Jack started forward, but Declan grabbed his brother’s arm and jerked him back.
Hamilton’s mouth had gone white. “Dinnae test me. Today of all days, I’d like nothing more than to stomp the life oot of someone. Fate owes me that satisfaction, if nae else.”
Jack made as if to rise to the bait, but Declan said sharply,
“Whatever Anna wished for, it was nae an argument. She hated it when any of us disagreed.”
There was a moment of heavy silence, emotions too raw to ignore thickening the air. Somewhere in the distance a door slammed, followed by the faint cry of a baby.
The duke turned toward the cry, all color draining from his face. His shoulders sank and he took an involuntary step back, as if struck by a sword’s blow.
As the baby’s cry was hushed by the soothing voice of a nanny, the duke leaned heavily against the wall, his head down, his breathing harsh.
As if the wind has left his sails. Conner cleared his throat. “Perhaps we should go to the babe and—”
“Nae,” Hamilton said harshly. “He is with the wet nurse. She will care for him.”
Jack’s brows lowered. “Hamilton, dinnae hold the lad at fault for Anna’s death. He did naught but be born.”
“Of course I dinnae blame him,” Hamilton snapped, his voice raw. “If anyone is at fault for Anna’s death, ’tis me.”
The words hung in the room.
Conner shook his head. “?’Twas the cruelness of nature, Hamilton, but nae more.”
Hamilton slowly gathered himself and turned back to the window, his expression hidden from view. “Leave. Now.”
Conner exchanged looks with Declan. What did it bode for Anna’s babe if his father could not even bear to hear his cries?
Jack’s eyes were now dark with sadness instead of fury. Silently, he crossed the room to where the duke stood slumped against the wall. After an awkward moment, he placed his hand on Hamilton’s broad shoulder.
The duke bowed his head, but did not move. It wasn’t an encouragement, but neither was it a rebuff.
Declan cleared his throat and went to stir the fire, as if to give Jack and the duke a bit of time in silence. Conner looked out the door to the broad stone staircase that led to the nursery, his heart aching. Anna had wanted to have a child so badly. Now she’d never have the chance to hold the baby in her arms, never know the pleasure of being a mother, never see her baby grow and laugh and— The burn of tears threatened to escape his control. This will nae help anyone. But there is one thing that will.
He dashed his hand over his eyes and sighed. “Fine. I will do as Anna wished.”
Declan and Jack turned surprised faces his way.
“She was right and ’tis time. ‘Marry, settle doon, be at peace with your life.’?” Conner managed a faint smile. “How many times did she tell us that? A hundred?”
“At least.” Declan’s smile carried regret, and after a quiet moment, he nodded. “I will agree, too. I will find a wife, and soon.”
Jack’s face hardened, and he dropped his hand from the duke’s shoulder, but didn’t argue.
The duke pushed himself from the wall and turned to face them. “Thank you.”
“We should nae tarry. Come.” Conner went to the door, his brothers following. Once there, he turned to
say good-bye, but Hamilton was already looking back out the window, his gaze locked on the grave.
Declan jerked his head toward the hallway and the three of them left, softly closing the door behind them.
Jack scowled as they headed to the front door. “Much as I loved our sister, I’d go into this more willingly if I knew there were benefits other than honoring her memory.”
Conner accepted his coat from a footman. “If we marry and settle doon, it will silence society’s chattering. ’Twas that which irritated Anna.”
Jack glowered. “All I want is to howl and stomp like a madman.”
“As do I.” Declan gave a humorless laugh. “Perhaps we need wives to soften our angry hearts.”
Conner wondered what he would do with his inheritance. He’d never thought about it before; he’d been too busy with his shipping and privateering interests, which had proven wildly profitable. Truly, he had no need of these funds. But, then, neither do the bloody Campbells.
The butler opened the door. Conner sent a final glance up the long stairway where his nephew was now sleeping. Should he visit the lad? He shook his head; he’d just wake the babe. The lad was better left in the care of the nurse Anna had chosen before her lying in.
With a reluctant sigh, Conner followed his brothers outside. They stood in the cold, the wet, gray day suiting their moods as they waited for the carriage.
Conner turned up his collar against the wind. “We might as well make the best of this. Think, lads: had we
received our inheritances withoot the security offered by a marriage, we’d be the targets of every matchmaking mama in Scotland.”
Jack looked appalled. “You’re right.”
Declan grimaced. “We would nae be able to go oot in public withoot being mobbed by crazed mamas and their wedding-hungry daughters.”
Jack nodded. “By Zeus, that’s true. We must find pleasant, malleable brides and quickly.”
Conner added, “A lass with the guid sense nae to try and change us. Someone nae demanding. A woman of calm disposition, nae given to dramatic scenes or possessive tantrums, who—” Good God, he knew a woman like that. Only one, but one was enough. Thea.
Theodora Cumberbatch-Snowe was the sister of one of his best friends. She was well born, practical, and pretty enough, although rather quiet. The daughter of a diplomat, she knew her way through life, plus she was well past society’s declared marriageable age, which would make her grateful for his offer. Flooded with relief, he announced, “I know the lady I’ll marry. My friend Derrick’s sister, Thea. I’ll go to her and tell her what’s toward with the will. She’ll marry me and be glad of it.”
Declan shook his head. “Conner, lad, you’re a bloody fool if you think Miss Cumberbatch-Snowe will entertain such a slapdash suit. I’ve met the lady, and she dinnae strike me as the type to accept a half-baked proposal.”
Conner grinned. “I’ll wager you a hundred pounds she’ll take my offer withoot question.”
Declan looked intrigued. “You’ll tell her flat oot you’re desirous of marrying her for nae other reason than to attain your inheritance?”
“And that you think she’d nae be a bother as a wife?” Jack added.
Conner scoffed, “I’d never lie to Thea. She knows me and accepts me as I am.” She liked him well enough, he was certain of that. She always seemed pleased when he visited, and she couldn’t wish to spend the rest of her days at her parents’ house. Who would?
Jack snorted in amusement. “Fool. I accept your offer of a hundred.”
“Count me in,” Declan said. “That’s a hundred each, nae a hundred split between us.”
“Done. You two are making an error; I know her weel. I’ve been friends with her and her family since I met her brother at Cambridge.”
Declan snorted. “Friendship is one thing, wiving another.”
“I’ll enjoy spending your funds, both of you.” He wouldn’t enjoy being wed, but perhaps with Thea, marriage would at least be bearable. He was fortunate Thea’s father was between assignments now, or Conner might have had to sail to a foreign clime to find his intended bride. As it was, she was safely docked at Cumberbatch House, a mere week’s travel away, ready and waiting. As if it’s meant to be. He grinned at his brothers. “You’ll see how right I am. In a month or so, I’ll make my appearance at Cumberbatch House and walk away with the perfect wife.”
Declan’s eyebrows rose. “You’re nae going straight there?”
“We’ve four months, so there’s nae rush, and the lady’s father is awaiting orders that are nae expected for two months or more, so she’s going naewhere soon. I might as weel enjoy the time I have left as a single mon.”
Declan didn’t look convinced. “You’re taking a lot for granted.”
“Never take a woman for granted,” Jack added in a grim tone.
Conner waved them off like pesky flies. “You’ll see. Meanwhile, what will you two fools do? Any likely candidates in mind?”
“Bloody hell, nae.” Jack raked a hand through his hair. “I want a wife like I want a shot in the arse. I’ve nae idea who I’m to marry; I dinnae care overmuch for respectable women.”
“They are boring,” Declan agreed.
The coach rattled around the castle and stopped before them, two portmanteaus strapped to the back. As the footman hurried from the castle to open the coach door, Declan frowned. “Where’s my black trunk?”
The footman blinked. “I’m sorry, sir, but these were the only bags in the foyer.”
“Dammit. That fool valet must have forgotten to send it doon.” He turned to his brothers. “Go ahead. I’ll meet you at the ship.”
“Dinnae be late.” Conner climbed into the carriage and took a seat, Jack joining him. “With this wind, we cannae wait.”
Declan stepped back from the coach. “If I’m nae
there when the tide turns, leave withoot me. I’ll catch another ship in a day or two.”
Conner banged on the ceiling to signal to the coachman to head to the port, anxious to leave. These next few weeks would be his last days of freedom, and he was determined to wring every possible ounce of pleasure from them. But in the meantime, he could relax, for his path—and Thea’s, though she didn’t yet know it—was set.