A Misguided Lord -
A Tenacious Trents Novel
It is time for Clayton Trent, Earl of Bentley, to take a bride. He knows exactly what he needs and the type of lady who should become his Countess. His life is orderly, scandal free and exactly the way it should be until Miss Eleanor Westin careens into him, upsetting the perfect balance of his world. She is everything his father said he should not marry. Yet, he cannot put her from his mind, not even when a decade old scandal threatens the very foundation of his family.
Miss Eleanor Westin has spent her life in the country on the brink of poverty and raising her siblings after the death of her parents until her grandfather finally decides to do his duty and brings her to London. Eleanor simply wants to find a gentleman who is willing to take on her family in the bargain. Love is not even a consideration if she can land security. Unfortunately, the only gentleman who has made any offer is Lord Bentley, and he will never do. If only he would stay out of her dreams so she could forget him and his intoxicating kisses.
Bentley Manor, Northeast Kent, England
The lone candle cast larger than life shadows along the walls of the long dark hall on the nursery floor of Bentley manor. “Please, take me with you,” the young Clayton Trent, Viscount Carlyle begged his step-mother, Adele. “I promise not to be a burden.” His heart pounded within his chest. She couldn’t leave him. Leave them. What were he and his brothers to do without Adele?
A gentle smile came to her lovely face as she brought a hand up and caressed Clay’s cheek. “If only I could, I would.”
“Why can’t you?” He blinked back tears. She could not take Julia, his baby sister, and leave them.
“Your father would come after me.” Her hand dropped to the side. “It is best this way.” She bent forward and pulled Clay close and held him for but a minute. He wanted to cling to her pelisse to keep her here. Adele kissed the top of his head. “Hug your brothers for me and tell them that I love them, but I can’t stay here any longer.”
Clay glanced up into his step-mother’s angelic face, tears streamed down her cheeks. Julia, his half-sister of only two, whimpered. If he pinched Julia she would cry and wake the servants, then Adele couldn’t go anywhere. He looked down at the child, thumb in her rosebud mouth, watching him. She brought a small pudgy fist up and rubbed a clear green eye. The babe should be in bed, not standing in the corridor at one in the morning, dressed for a journey. And, he couldn’t hurt Julia, no matter how much it served his purpose. That was his baby sister. She was supposed to be his responsibility since he was the oldest brother.
“But how can I protect Julia, and you?”
A sad smile came to his step-mother’s face. “I will protect Julia. It will be easier away from here.” She caressed his cheek again. “You protect your brothers. They are going to need you.”
With that she picked up Julia and walked down the dark servant stairs leading to the kitchen. Clay trailed after her, not ready to be parted. When she reached the door leading out of the house, she looked back at him. “Return to bed. Say a prayer for us and I will for you.” The door closed and Clay stood in the room for a moment before he raced up to his chamber. Once there, he leaned against the window and watched her disappear into the woods.
Surely she wasn’t walking all the way to town. It was too far. She would come back. She had to come back.
Clay pulled a chair up and sat at the window until the orange glow of dawn rose from the earth. His eyes were dry and scratchy, tears long spent. Adele and Julia never came back. She had left them and the pain was almost too much to bear.
He couldn’t bring himself to leave the window even though breakfast had been served and his tutor would arrive in an hour. What if Adele changed her mind? He had to be here. He had to watch. What if she needed them?
At the scratch on the door, Clay turned as the butler entered. “Your father wishes you in his study as soon as you are dressed.”
Clay swallowed. Did Father already know they were gone? Had they come back and Clay had missed the arrival? He hurried and dressed. Father became very cross if one was tardy and not knowing what his mood would be today, Clay didn’t dawdle.
He didn’t want to give his father any further reason to be angry.
At his decent on the stairs on the way to the study, Clay was met by his brothers, who apparently were also summoned. The first was Jordan, almost two years Clays junior would turn eight in a week. Beside him was Matthew, age seven and finally John, soon to be six. The four of them lined up before Father’s grand, dark mahogany desk, hands folded before them, backs straight, chins high, in age order as well as height. They looked like a set of steps from behind, or at least that is what a maid had once told them.
“They’re dead.” The pronouncement came without the slightest hint of remorse or feeling. Cold. Angry.
Clayton stared at his father, trying to absorb the words. “Who is dead, father?”
“That woman I married, Adele, and her daughter, Julia.” Venom dripped from his words.
Pain shot through Clay’s heart and his stomach clenched. This was worse than watching them leave. Far, far worse.
Why wasn’t his father more upset, grieving? The man had just lost his wife and child.
“How father?” Jordan questioned. Clay glanced at his brother, who was particularly close to their step-mother. They all were, actually. Clay barely recalled the woman who gave birth to him and he knew the others did not. Especially John, since she died of a fever when John was but a week old.
“Their carriage went over the side of a bridge?”
Maybe he should have pinched Julia, then they would have been caught and both would be alive today.
Matthew sniffed and Father glared at him. “A man does not cry.”
He watched his brother blink a few times and tightened his mouth. Matt was but a child of seven, hardly a man, yet they all learned from an early age what his father deemed correct behavior from his sons. Crying was not included in that list.
“Will there be a funeral?” Jordan asked.
“No. The bodies were carried down the river. I doubt we will ever find them. They’ve probably already been swept out to sea.”
How can the man be so unfeeling? Clay’s chest tightened with buried emotion. He would not show weakness in front of his father but the idea of baby Julia and Adele floating, or sinking into the cold, dark water tore him apart inside.
“I’ll miss Mother,” John whispered.
Father’s hands slammed down on the desk, making them jump. Father leaned forward. “That woman was not your mother. She was a mistake and we should all be glad to be rid of her.”
Clay wanted to argue that she wasn’t a mistake but the best thing to happen to them since their mother died. Adele was full of love, life, laughter and happiness. She sang, read to them and played on the lawn. His father just barked orders and used the switch when he deemed it necessary.
“Poor Julia,” Jordan muttered.
“Is probably not your sister either.”
All four sets of eyes widened and Clay looked back at his father.
“She was probably the by-blow of a stableman,” his father grumbled. Clay’s face heated. He recently learned what by-blow stood for, though he was certain that person was wrong. His mother would not have another man’s child. It wasn’t possible. Not when she was married to his father and babies only came from being married. Of that he was certain. Father was just being mean.
“What is a by-blow?” Matthew asked.
Father glanced at the boy. “Nothing you need to concern yourself with.”
Silence followed and Clay had a number of questions, but none he dared ask. His brothers were equally silent waiting for Father to continue. They all feared him, and with good reason. One never knew when his rage would boil. And when it did, one didn’t want to be in the same room.
Father sneered and tossed back a glass of brandy. Perhaps he was more upset than he was letting on because Father never drank in the morning.
“You are dismissed, except for Clayton.”
Clay’s heart pounded and he stood waiting while his brothers filed out of the room, closing the door behind them.
“This should be a lesson to you son.”
Clay swallowed. Did his father know about last night, that Clay had watched them leave and said nothing? “What lesson?”
“There are two types of women in the world.”
Clay inwardly sighed. He would much rather receive a lecture than a beating.
“Your mother, God rest her soul, was a perfect woman; Shy, quiet, and unassuming. She didn’t speak unless spoken to. She never questioned my authority and did as she was bid. She waited until I was not busy to speak with me, and always turned to me for guidance. Furthermore, she did her duty by providing four perfect sons.” His father poured more liquid into his glass and took a drink.
“Yes sir.” Clay didn’t know what else to say.
“In contrast, Adele was the exact opposite. Beautiful beyond words. Full of life, energy and passion.” Father scowled at him over the rim of the glass and took another drink. “I married her for you, all of you. I needed a young lady to raise my sons, who could keep up with you, and that was my mistake.”
“I don’t understand.” Adele was perfect. Clay loved Adele and wanted her back. But, she was dead and he would never see her again. Tears threatened and he blinked, willing them away before Father noticed.
“A beautiful woman, full of laughter, does not make a good wife. She wanted things. She wanted attention. She wanted to dance, to sing, and have a man in her bed all hours of the day. The final blow was when she delivered a worthless daughter.”
Clay’s face heated. He barely understood what his father meant, but knew enough to wish that they were not having this conversation.
“She wanted to return to London for the Season, to be with friends, to shop and stroll in the park.”
“That sounds fun.”
“It is, for a young girl without responsibilities.” His father tipped the glass until not even a drop was left. “A wife must see to her family and husband, and remain at his estate. They should not go gallivanting off to London or Bath whenever it suits them. She even wanted to read about finances, investing and philosophy.” He poured more liquid into his goblet from the decanter sitting on the desk. “She thought herself capable of what only a man can understand. Had I realized that when we met, I would have never offered for her.”
Clay couldn’t recall Adele ever leaving the estate, though he heard more arguments than he could count, begging Father to take her away for just a short week.
His father pushed back, stood and glared down at Clay. “She had a poor influence on you, which I regret most.”
Clay swallowed as his father lifted the willow switch.
“I know you saw her last night and asked her not to leave.”
Clay wanted to run from the room. How had his father found out?
“I don’t blame you for wanting her to stay. She coddled you when she should have treated you like a young man, the heir that you are. It is good she is gone before she ruined you.” Father’s voice was cold, lifeless as he walked around to the front of the desk. “I do blame you for not alerting me.”
“I am sorry, Father. I thought she would be back.”
“Sorry is not good enough.” He tapped the switch against his leg. “Let loose your breeches and bend over.”
London, April, 1813
I am a fraud. Miss Eleanor Westin took another step back. The ballroom of the Duke and Duchess of Pranth became more crowded and noisier with each passing moment. It was a wonder anyone could even breathe. I do not belong here. Nor did she have any business dressing in this manner, wearing a frothy yellow ball gown that cost a small fortune. While Eleanor had every right to be included in polite society, her mind and soul were more comfortable amongst the servant class. Still, she must do what she must and in as short a time as possible. At least her grandfather’s sudden interest came at the perfect time. She needed a husband: a wealthy, kind and understanding husband.
Was there even such a gentleman in London?
Her sister Leigh had encouraged this endeavor, yet Leigh had no idea just how desperate their financial situation was at the moment. Her grandfather understood, yet he would not lift a finger to help anyone but Eleanor
Soon, if all went well, she would be out from under his roof and in the home of another, her family safe and protected.
The crowd thickened and Eleanor found herself stepping back further. She glanced down at her gown. The cost of this garment alone could have fed them for weeks. Oh, how she prayed this wasn’t a waste. Then again, her grandfather had provided the wardrobe so Eleanor hadn’t actually spent any of her limited funds.
Soon, she found herself pressed against the wall.
This will not do at all. If she were to find a husband, she shouldn’t be standing in the corner.
After she pasted a smile on her lips, Eleanor began to work her way through the crowd and to her grandmother’s side where she could be introduced to those who could help her to secure funds, food and shelter. Actually, the shelter wasn’t a problem. Food and funds however, were. In return, she would be a wife none could ever fault.
Eleanor tried to squeeze between two separate groups of people speaking. If the music would just start than maybe some of these bodies would take to the dance floor. She managed through the small gap without an elbow to her ribs and turned toward her grandparents and right into the hard wall of a gentleman. Goodness, was he made of stone? Eleanor stumbled and his hands grasped her elbows to steady her. She tilted her head back to look at the gentleman who saved her from a spill on the parquet floor, her skin tingling from his touch.
He was frowning and his deep green eyes narrowed on her.
“Excuse me.” She muttered, fighting for breath. Why was her chest so tight and her pulse racing?
The gentleman may be scowling at her but he was the most handsome man she had ever encountered. Aquiline noise, high cheek bones, dark hair, the purest green eyes, and firm, frowning lips. Heat radiated from his body, warming her through their clothing.
“Do watch where you are going.”
Eleanor stiffened and pulled back, affronted. How dare he? He was not there a moment ago. “You are the one who stepped into my path.”
He arched a dark eyebrow. “I was calmly strolling. You are the one who careened through the crowd without looking where you were going.”
Eleanor gasped. Of all the nerve! “As I do not have your height, I can’t see nearly as well as you. However, I do apologize.” She jerked her elbows from his hands and grasped her skirt. “If you will excuse me, I promise to watch my step and stay out of your way.” With a huff, she lifted her chin and marched to her grandparents. If this is what she expected from the gentlemen in London, Eleanor wasn’t sure she wished to marry.
Nay, it wasn’t a wish or a want, but a need for it was the only way to gain any security for her siblings.
“Where have you been?” Her grandfather, Earl Stanhope, hissed in her ear from behind. “You are here to meet a proper gentleman so you can marry and be settled.”
If her grandfather had actually been concerned with her future, he would not have waited until she was four and twenty to bring her in from the country. Eleanor still didn’t understand his sudden desire to see her wed. In the past she had gone months with no word from him, even an entire year when she was eighteen. Why the sudden interest now? She’d asked when she first arrived but he had only grunted.
“You look lovely, Eleanor,” her grandmother assured her. “I am sure you will attract any number of gentlemen.”
Eleanor glanced around the room and found the likelihood to be very doubtful. She was past the fresh bloom of youth and closer to the shelf, whereas a number of young ladies, dressed in the white or pastel gowns, were radiant by comparison. Those were the ones the eligible gentlemen were paying attention too, not her.
Clayton Trent tossed back a glass of champagne and looked for a footman so he could replace the empty crystal for a full one. You know your duty. His father’s deathbed orders echoed through his mind. Clay would reach three and thirty in a month and couldn’t put off taking a wife any longer. At least his step-mother, his father’s third wife, Rose, was not here to assist. Rose’s idea of the perfect mate and his were in complete opposition. With his father’s passing in January, she and his younger half-sister, Madeline, needed to refrain from public outings whereas he was forgiven. He was now the Earl of Bentley and of an age when a man should take a wife, with the duty of producing an heir and a spare hanging over his head.
Well, if one was to find a bride, this was the perfect setting as dozens of young ladies danced below in the ballroom. He had first focused on the debutants dressed in the palest of colors from a balcony overlooking the ballroom as society carried on as it had done for years, but soon had his fill of batting eyelashes, pouty lips and giggles, and wondered if there was a lady in the bunch who could carry on a simple conversation without flirting.
The newest lady caught his attention once again. Clayton’s eyes kept returning to her since their earlier encounter, and she had rarely left the side of Lord and Lady Stanhope. Was she a relation or was Lady Stanhope simply sponsoring her? Not that Clay could guess her age, but the woman was a few years past what should have been her first season so where had she come from?
Even from this distance he could see her brown eyes spark with humor and an easy smile came to her full lips.
Why had he been so rude to her? He was the one who had stepped into her path. He should have seen her. The top of the young woman’s head barely came to his chin and no doubt she was lucky not to have been trampled before their encounter. The ballroom was a crush and there would certainly be a number of bruised toes before the night ended and the very reason Clay had decided to remain on the balcony, away from the throng of people below.
Who was she and should he apologize?
Of course he should beg her forgiveness, but Clay knew nothing about the woman, except that his eyes were drawn to her every few moments. Perhaps it was the simple contact of their bodies. He hadn’t held a woman in months and her soft breasts pressed against his chest was an almost foreign sensation. His body had heated almost immediately and it took all his energy to keep his hands at her elbows when he wanted to slide them up her arms and draw her close.
What had gotten into him? He had never reacted so quickly to a woman before and he didn’t even know the lady, yet her warm breath and sweet scent reminded him of springtime. It had lingered about them and stirred something within. Almost a longing, and completely unexplainable. Clay couldn’t even think of a flower the perfume reminded him of, just that it brought forth fond memories from long ago.
Adele! She smelled like Adele.
Clay’s eyes narrowed on the young woman. In fact, much of young woman reminded Clay of Adele, his father’s second wife. Though he was only a boy of ten when the woman left, only to be killed, Clay recalled her as if they had spoken yesterday.
Not only was the scent the same, but the young woman’s easy mannerisms as she spoke, gesturing to make a point or explain. Gentlemen had surrounded her like moths to a flame. It wasn’t that she was a beauty, though the young woman was pretty enough. It was something she projected. Her laugh was quick and easy and her movements freer than others. The tinkle of her laughter drifted up toward him and Clay was forced to block out the memory of the woman who had abandoned four small boys.
Despite his sudden attraction, it was best to put the young woman from his mind. He knew the heartache his family had suffered because of a woman like her and Clay would not repeat past mistakes.
Clay forced his eyes away and studied each lady in the room. There had to be someone here he could consider for his wife. The quicker he was done with his business the sooner he could get back to running the family estates and managing their business ventures and investments. It was simply a matter of priorities and responsibility and as soon as the goal of finding a wife was accomplished he could focus on the duties that came with his title.In the far corner was a young woman, blond hair piled upon her head, ringlets falling to her shoulders. Her eyes remained downcast, a slight smile on her lips. A blush stained her cheeks when Lord Averton said something to her. Clay racked his brain for a name. Oh yes, Lady Anne Houghton. This was her second season. She was a young woman who rarely left the side of one of her parents. Yes, she was the one. That was the woman he would marry.