March sat across from her sister Faith and Uncle Hart in a small sitting area in front of a large window that overlooked the street below.
“March, shall we leave?” Hart’s deep gravelly voice broke the eerie silence.
Twisting and untwisting her fingers into knots must have been the first visible clue she wasn’t at all confident in her purpose. As if on cue, the study door swung open, and her David walked in accompanied by another equally handsome man.
Resplendent in a black coat, gray waistcoat, and tan breeches, David, otherwise know as the Marquess of McCalpin, surveyed the three of them for a moment. The large fire in the hearth crackled, almost as if calling out in greeting. He made his way to stand in front of them.
A blast of heat hit March’s cheek. Her purpose today dictated she succeed in getting her funds released, not moon over a man. The simple truth? He was a man, nothing more and nothing less. Such a thought should lessen his effect on her concentration.
Unfortunately, it didn’t.
“Miss Lawson.” Her David took her hand in his and sketched a perfect bow. “I’m Lord McCalpin.”
She stood and dipped a curtsy. Ripples of heat radiated up her arm from where his hand held hers. The warmth he created with a mere touch could melt the sea ice in the Arctic Ocean.
With an elegant turn, the marquess extended the same greeting to Faith, who did her best to curtsey. To his credit, he didn’t bat an eye at her sister’s difficulty mastering the movement.
“Mr. Victor Hart.” Her old friend stood tall and didn’t shy away from the formidable ducal heir in front of them.
“I’m McCalpin.” The marquess shook Hart’s hand in greeting. “Allow me to introduce my brother, Lord William Cavensham.”
Lord William greeted everyone. The smile he extended to Faith was simply spectacular, but Faith pulled her hand away as if wary of the gentleman before her.
She’d do well to follow Faith’s lead. These two men were stunningly handsome and could steal every argument she possessed. She released a silent sigh.
“Thank you for coming on such short notice.” The smile on Lord McCalpin’s face transformed him from a handsome mortal to a breathtaking Greek god. “I think we’re long overdue for an introduction.”
“Indeed.” March cleared the bevy of bullfrogs that had decided to take up residence in her throat. The marquess quirked an eyebrow, then smiled warmly. “Follow me.”
Her stomach slipped to her knees along with the delicate cherry tart she’d eaten. Her perfect man was the new trustee, and she needed his help. That was the only reason she was there. If she kept up that mantra, she’d survive this interview. With a hefty dose of apprehension, she followed him to the far end of the room.
Beside his massive desk, the marquess turned and faced her direction. He extended his arm toward her with his palm face up.
Without thought, March clasped his large hand tightly in hers. He would quickly deduce her desperation if she didn’t comport herself with a little more dignity. His hand contained an inherent warmth and strength that caused a slight tremble to erupt from her toes to her head.
“I thought we’d already introduced ourselves,” he whispered with a wink. “But if you’d like me to do the honors again, I’d be happy to.” After a slight bow, he released her hand and again, motioned toward a chair in front of his desk. The impish smile on his face could’ve charmed a roomful of sour dowagers.
She pressed her eyes closed in an attempt to settle the butterflies that flittered in her chest. He was simply pointing what seat she was to sit in, and she had thought he wanted to take her hand again.
He must think I’m an artless fool. Good God, could this be any more mortifying?
Faith and Hart settled on a lush sofa toward the entrance of the room, but March felt the comforting heat of her sister’s gaze on her back. She took a deep breath to gain some order over her scattered senses. Her family’s welfare depended upon her surviving this conversation and convincing the marquess to release her money. His brother settled in the chair next to her.
Once seated behind his desk, Lord McCalpin leaned forward to close the distance between them. “Miss Lawson, tell me about you and your family,” he commanded in a low, composed voice.
March answered quickly over her choking, beating heart. “I seek the money my father left me.”
He tilted his head and lifted an eyebrow.
Her cheeks flamed, but she continued to blather on without answering his request. “In truth, I turned twenty-five over three months ago. I’m not certain why you haven’t released my funds. Whatever the reason, I just want to clear up this misunderstanding and get my money.”
There was no question. She was an absolute utter buffoon.
The way she’d bumbled her presentation proved it. She stared at her clasped hands so she’d not have to witness his inevitable disdain. There was no turning back now.
Normally, men didn’t have any impact on her. She was not a woman whose looks lent any type of persuasive power to an argument with the opposite sex. She’d always prided herself on her wits and ability to negotiate the highest sale prices for the estate’s wool. It was more productive than a coy smile or a dramatic bat of the eyelashes, neither of which she had mastered effectively. Nevertheless, what little talent or intelligence she possessed had completely deserted her.
“Humor me before we discuss money,” McCalpin drawled. “In reviewing your family’s situation, I’ve discovered there’s not a guardian for your siblings or the estate named in your father’s documents. After Lord Burns’ death, no one has helped you, I take it? How have you managed?”
“I live with my two sisters and our brother, Bennett. I’ve been running the estate for the past eight years.” She delivered a slight smile. “I plan to retain a solicitor. I . . . we need a guardian appointed for the estate. I’m perfectly capable of looking after my family.”
His mouth dipped into a frown and, for a moment, his eyes studied her with a curious intensity. “Miss Lawson, you have my sincerest apologies for not contacting you sooner after Lord Burns died. We’re both aware that you’re not of age to receive your trust money. I had my solicitor review the documents to insure I was correct, which he verified. You may not receive your inheritance until next year.”
With a slight shake of her head, she struggled to comprehend. If the man had jumped on his desk and danced a jig naked, she wouldn’t have been more shocked. “Sir, does my trust not end when I’m twenty-five? I was born in 1788, making me, indeed, of age.”
McCalpin reviewed the parchment on his desk then returned his gaze to hers. “The trust states you were born on the twenty-third of November, 1789.”
She bit her lip and clenched her hands into fists. He stared at her mouth before his eyes narrowed. She might steal from her own trust, but she wasn’t a liar. Completely out of her realm, she wasn’t prepared for this meeting. She should have written a response requesting the reason for the interview. He had already grown suspicious of her, and he held her future and her family’s happiness in his hands. Not to mention, he held her teetering career as an embezzler on the precarious edge of ruin.
“Rest assured I will do everything in my power to perform the duties as dictated by your father’s request. Perhaps it’s best if I have my solicitor inquire about your brother’s estate.”
“This is pure madness,” she blurted.
“Perhaps on your part, Miss Lawson, but I can assure you that I’m quite sane.” A grimace crossed his perfect mouth. The effort prominently displayed a full lower lip that deserved a firm bite in retaliation. The sliver of emotion in the marquess’s cool eyes warned her things were going from bad to disastrous. “Surely, the estate is flush with funds? It pays for itself, I assume?”
She tapped her foot to keep from stomping it in anger. “Sir, flush? We’ve received nothing. There hasn’t been any allowance for the estate’s operation all year.”
“Miss Lawson. I don’t manage the viscountcy estate.” He leaned back in his chair and delivered the coldest stare she’d ever received in her life. It could have turned a summer shower into a blizzard. She lifted her chin in response. His attention suddenly snapped to Hart. “Could you explain who Mr. Hart is?”
Immediately, she regretted her snappish tone. She pushed aside an unwelcome wave of embarrassment. Ever mindful of her cause, a logical argument was always more persuasive than raw emotion. “May we continue to discuss my trust? My father’s solicitors must have copied the birth date wrong, or perhaps poor penmanship causes the eighty-eight to appear as an eighty-nine in my birth year. That has to be the explanation.”
Lord McCalpin assessed her with a wary intelligence. “Excellent theories, Miss Lawson.” He glanced at the trust document before him, then pushed it toward her. “Unfortunately, the gentleman who wrote this document had a hand that was neat and precise.” He turned his attention to the front of the room. “Mr. Hart, it appears Miss Lawson refuses to comment on your relationship to the family—”
“Mr. Hart was employed by my late father when he served under the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the United States. He was my father’s aide de camp and stayed with my family after we lost our parents.” She drew a breath and prayed for control and patience.
“Mr. Hart, are you related to the family?” The marquess’s sinfully dark voice floated over her as if tasting her. She shook her head at such thoughts in a desperate attempt to gather her wayward senses.
Without a hint of emotion, Hart answered, “No, my lord.”
McCalpin propped both elbows on his desk. “Miss Lawson, tell me more about your living arrangements.”
She clenched her fists once more. What more did the man want from her? “We have one servant, Mrs. Oliver, who helps me run the house. She’s been with us since I was a baby.”
“Do you have any other family?” He straightened the papers in front of him.
For some odd reason, it reminded her of Bennett’s recent attempt to relieve her as his housekeeper. “We have one cousin, but he lives in his own home close to Leyton.”
“Is there perchance a suitable chaperone who lives with you and your family?”
“No. At my age, I’m a perfectly acceptable chaperone for my sisters.” She squared her shoulders and refused to turn away from his direct gaze.
“It’s hard to fathom that the solicitors bungled your birthdate. However, if you are twenty-five as you claim”— his gaze pierced hers—“I will gladly give you your money with the proviso you present me proof. I will not shirk my responsibilities as trustee.”
This man dared to keep her property under his control, when by all rights it should be in her possession. March struggled to remain calm. She lost the battle as her temper rose, and that never boded well for anyone, particularly her.
In a flash, she stood with her well-worn brown muslin dress rustling in protest against her movements. “You’ve shirked your responsibility to us before. Why hasn’t your solicitor answered my correspondence? You can’t withhold those funds. I’m twenty-five. That’s my money. You’ve never even visited Lawson Court,” she challenged.
“Is that an invitation, Miss Lawson? If so, then I readily accept.” Matching her movements, McCalpin stood and leaned over the desk to bring his eyes level with hers. “I have a duty to protect your money, and I plan to carry out that responsibility. Even if it means protecting it from you. Remember, I can and I will keep those funds.” A light flashed in his dark blue eyes that indicated his anger matched hers. “Do you have proof of your birthdate? A letter from a clergyman verifying it perhaps?”
March swallowed, then leaned in closer. In a crisp dictation, she answered, “Such records are usually kept in the family bible. The one recording my birth was lost when my parents left New York to return to England. You’ll have to accept my word.”
“That’s not enough,” he said tersely, tightening his stance.
March remained standing. To sit would mean she was giving up her claim. “There are repairs that must be made to the tenant’s home, and our home was damaged in a winter storm. Some of the roof damage has been repaired, but the estate still owes money to some local businesses that have kindly extended credit.”
“You would use your own funds for these repairs and debts?” He narrowed his eyes.
“Lord Burns didn’t provide any monies last year. When he died, there was no one to give me money for the estate management. I have no other choice than to pay for it myself until I can choose a guardian for the estate.” She clasped her fingers together in a desperate attempt to gain control over her anger. “As there is no guardian to say otherwise, I’m opening our family townhouse this spring and will move my sisters and brother to London for the Season. My sisters are of such an age they should take their rightful place in society. Bennett, my little brother, inherited my father’s title and should experience the educational offerings only London can provide. Since you, sir, are in charge of my sisters’ monies also, I hope they aren’t prey to the same sort of mistakes rampant through my documents.”
A brief scowl shadowed Lord McCalpin’s face, and his lips thinned in displeasure. “If what you say is true, then I readily agree your situation warrants immediate attention. Allow me the opportunity of seeing the estate for myself. Is that too much to ask?”
He ran a hand down the length of his face. The effort seemed to eliminate some of his anger.
“Let me evaluate your requests for tenant repairs and the estate’s debts. The idea of bringing your family to London isn’t to be taken lightly. It’s a massive undertaking. That’s all I can promise today.”
“Sir, I’m not asking you to take over the estate. I’m asking for—”
Lord William placed several letters on the desk. March’s heart stopped mid-beat when she saw her forged requests for funds. Bile scourged her throat as her face heated with humiliation.
She could face anything except for the marquess’s beratement in front of Faith and Hart. For her shame to be made public to her family was a burden she didn’t think she could bear.
McCalpin reached for the letters. Without a second thought, she placed her hand over his, a completely inappropriate gesture hidden from Faith and Hart. It made little difference at this point. He would ruin her if she didn’t stop him.
“Please, not in front of them,” she whispered, the words so faint she wasn’t certain she’d said them.
He continued to pull the documents toward him, but regarded her. It had to have been her imagination, but his eyes seemed to soften. She almost missed the slight dip of his chin in acknowledgment. His gaze went to his brother. Silently, they communicated with one another, and Lord William stood and walked to her sister and Hart.
“Miss Faith, there’s a lovely portrait of my late uncle, the previous Duke of Langham. When he was the Marquess of McCalpin, I understand he became a close friend of your father’s. May I show it to you? He was a handsome fellow. People say I favor him, and I’d like your opinion.”
Faith reluctantly nodded, and Hart rose to join them. Protective, he wouldn’t allow Faith to wander off with the young aristocrat without his presence. The trio left the room, and she found herself alone with the marquess.
She sat back down in the chair and waited for her sentence.Return to The Luck of the Bride
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