Clayton Trent, Earl of Bentley, lives an orderly, scandal free life and exactly how he prefers 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.
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 short order. At least her grandfather’s sudden interest had come 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. 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. If the music would just start, then 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 hand grasped her elbow 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 nose, 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 elbow from his hand 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 could expect 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. 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 certain that 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 several young ladies, dressed in their white or pastel gowns, were radiant by comparison. Those were the ones the eligible gentlemen were paying attention to, 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 stepmother, 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 debutantes dressed in the palest of colors, but he 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 gaze 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 come 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 several bruised toes before the night ended, which was 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 hand at her elbow when he wanted to draw her close.
What had gotten into him? He had never reacted so quickly to a woman before. He didn’t even know her, 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.
That was it1 She smelled like Adele.
Clay’s eyes narrowed on the young woman. In fact, much about the young woman reminded Clay of Adele. Though he had only been 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 were similar, 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. Demure and modest, quiet and if he wasn’t mistaken, sweet. The perfect woman to make his countess.
Available at AMAZON