Lord Quentin Hoyt, fourth son of the current marquess of Belden, handed his lathered gelding to a stable hand. He checked his pocket watch as he strode down the mews to his back gate. Satisfied at the time he’d made, he handed his hat to a footman who hurried to greet him. Still wearing his muddy boots and the filth of the road, he eagerly took the stairs two at a time to his study.
In a house blessedly quiet and now free of the twittering females his family foisted upon him during the Season, he could finally settle in and tend to neglected tasks. Work was the reason he rose in the morning. He whistled as he entered his book-crammed study.
Acton Penrose, an old friend and his newly hired aide, appeared as soon as Quent dropped into his desk chair. “You made good time, sir.”
“Leave off the ‘sir’ bit. You’re the one with society connections, not me.” This was mainly because Quent’s impoverished Scots family had scorned England, their English relations, English schools, and even the title his father now possessed. That was water well under the bridge and never a source of regret. He had little use for society except as a means of making money.
Quent lifted a stack of new leather books from his chair, their pages uncut and beckoning to be read. He looked around and found a stack on his shelves that wasn’t quite full yet. He sneaked a peek at a map in one particularly tempting volume before reluctantly stashing them away.
“I don’t know why you keep ordering books you never read,” Acton complained.
“It’s August,” Quent said in satisfaction. “I have no sisters to escort about, everyone is out of town, so I have few meetings. I can spend my evenings with books I’ve only heard about all year.”
Acton wrinkled up his nose in distaste but wisely held his tongue. From good family, with the sound education and social acquaintances that aristocratic relations and Cambridge brought, Penrose had lost his small inheritance to a scoundrel. He’d nearly died at Trafalgar attempting to earn a living as a naval officer. He still limped and favored his injured arm, but his mind was sharp, and he was always eager for action. Books weren’t action in Acton’s young mind, Quent understood.
Quent loosened his wilted neckcloth and unfastened his waistcoat as he flipped through the correspondence waiting on his orderly desk. “Do we have the information on that steamboat investment yet?”
The tall, ginger-haired ex-officer slid one set of documents out from beneath the others. “In here. It looks promising.”
Quent had only just hired him but had found his friend’s insight invaluable already. With luck and Penrose’s aid, he could double his accomplishments. He’d need to. Now that his father had inherited the title of marquess of Belden, the family responsibilities were seemingly limitless, while their fortunes remained quite confined. Quent’s older brothers had chosen farming to cover the estate expenses. They depended on Quent’s business acumen and London acquaintances to generate the capital needed for major improvements.
“Excellent.” Taking the papers, Quent lit a lamp to better read them. The steam engine had an auspicious future, the kind of imaginative investment he enjoyed.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t the kind of investment that generated quick cash. His father’s aging fortress needed a new roof, if his many siblings and extended family weren’t to drown this winter. Quent grimaced as he read. The design of this engine looked promising, but manufacturing experimental engines would drain more cash than he had and might not generate income for decades. Damn.
“What will happen in the future if we begin traveling about by steam?” Acton ventured to ask, distracting Quent from his numbers. “Think of all the stud farms and stablemen who make horses their business. And sailors—how will they earn a living? It seems impossible to imagine.”
“And it will happen many years after we’re moldering in our graves, I should think,” Quent said, setting the papers aside and reaching for the next batch. “Unfortunately, now that my father is responsible for both the Belden and Hoyt properties, he needs more wealth than Croesus possessed. So I can’t afford to take risks on that future.”
Painfully aware of the vagaries of fortune, Acton couldn’t argue. “It is a shame the late marquess left his wealth to his widow instead of to his estate. Then you could enjoy investing as you’d like, and your family would be provided for.”
“Edward was a miserable miser and made that fortune on his own, albeit with the aid of Belden coal,” Quent said, speaking of the late marquess. “The error was on my great-grandfather’s part in not demanding that his heirs sign an entailment on the mines as well as the farms. Edward was within his rights to leave his funds anywhere he liked.”
“Marry Lady Bell and reunite fortune with land,” Acton suggested with a grin, knowing he hit a sore point. Lady Isabell Hoyt, dowager marchioness of Belden, enjoyed spending the fortune her husband had left her.
“Your diplomacy needs work,” Quent said dryly. “But you remind me… Send round a note to the lady telling her I’m back and at her disposal.”
It didn’t hurt to remind Lady Bell that he existed, just in case she should grow bored with her empty bed after these years of widowhood. Marriage wasn’t his goal, but the lady was.
“Ah, I was saving the best for last,” Acton said with a self-important nod. “Lady Belden’s sisters have arrived from the Americas. They’re currently on the hunt for a nanny.”
Quent dropped the documents on the desk and stared at his aide. “Her sisters? What about her father?”
He’d made it his place to learn Lady Bell’s history. Quent’s family had been horrified when Edward, the old marquess, had come home with a new wife. As long as Edward had no sons, Quent’s father had been his only heir. A new wife had meant the potential loss of estate and title. At the time, Quent had wanted to believe that Bell was no more than a fortune hunter.
But Bell’s credentials had been impeccable, even if her father had been a dissolute gambler. She’d doted on her husband while he was alive and behaved with perfect circumspection in the years since his death—except for spending Edward’s wealth as generously as Edward had hoarded it.
Personally, Quent suspected the old marquess had married Bell just to spite his irascible Scots heir. The Hoyt family wasn’t known for its loving generosity.
But Bell had been grateful to the old curmudgeon for saving her family from disgrace and had never said a word against him. So it was Quent’s own jealousy at the old man’s good fortune that colored his views now. He’d only been twenty-five at the time Edward had married Bell. Quent had been living on luck and looks then and couldn’t even earn a glance from the vivacious young Irish bride.
Over this past decade, Bell had grown more beautiful—and sophisticated and cynical. The wide-eyed young innocent was gone, replaced by a dignified marchioness who commanded the small portion of society she deigned to acknowledge. Quent preferred the sensual widow to the naïve child.
If she had lovers, she was damned discreet about it. The men at his club had taken to calling her the Virgin Widow. That was a challenge he was prepared to meet—should she give him the slightest hint of interest. Which, admittedly, she hadn’t. Perhaps, now that his sisters were out of the way, it was time to escalate his pursuit.
“Her father has apparently died,” Penrose explained. “He must have left an estate sufficient for his executor to ship her sisters back to Lady Bell. I’ve only heard the news third hand, so I don’t know all the facts yet.”
Quent peeled off his riding coat and headed for his chambers and a bath. Business could wait a few hours. “Send word round to the lady that I’m on my way over.”
He ignored Acton’s knowing grin.
Bell had settled at her private desk to dash off correspondence to her circle of friends about the latest developments, when her maid delivered Quent’s note. Her first reaction was one of relief that he’d called on her so quickly. And then she scolded herself.
“He’s simply poking his nose where it doesn’t belong. I will not rely on him or any other man,” she vowed, folding the note into a square. But she rose and checked her mirror and found a prettier shawl to go with her gown. It had been a decade since she’d undertaken the study of the most distinguished ladies in society and learned to create an elegant style and air of her own. She wasn’t truly worried about her appearance.
She was nervous for reasons beyond her looks. Her father’s trunks had arrived this morning. She’d had time to peruse his documents before sending them to Summerby, her solicitor, with queries. She wished Quent had stayed in Scotland long enough for her to find answers.
She could hope that if she gave him a simple task, he wouldn’t have reason to look deeper. Yet.
Quent arrived immaculately dressed, as if about to set off for a night on the town. His blue superfine fit his broad shoulders to perfection, but the tailored elegance didn’t suit him. London gentlemen needed shoulder padding to achieve anything half so impressive as Quent’s yeomen’s shoulders. He stood taller than any man in any ballroom she’d ever attended. His muscled legs in tight stockinette had caused delicate females to gasp and fan themselves. He belonged on a destrier, wearing a suit of armor, at the very least. He always made her blood race a little faster, but she’d learned she needn’t act on rash urges anymore.
Wearing the cloak of civilization, she knew how to behave. She doubted that Quent was capable of misbehaving.
Bell led him to Edward’s study, where she could pour him a brandy. “I see you’re already off to discuss business at Lloyd’s. You didn’t need to stop by so soon after returning.”
They’d known each other too long to stand on propriety. That she didn’t require a servant while entertaining him spoke of their long-accepted roles. She was grateful for her worldly widow status. It simplified so much. She would never have fared well as a simpering maiden. That Quent acted as the Hoyt family representative in London gave them a family connection to quell rumors. That he was the most formidably proper gentleman in town aided her cause.
“I take it your sisters have gone back to Scotland. Since I have no protégée to marry off to your bachelor friends at the moment, I cannot think you needed to hurry over,” she said insouciantly, pretending this was an informal call.
Quent merely nodded acknowledgment of their ongoing wager. Bell had dowered Edward’s unmarried female relations so they might have choices she’d never had. Quent had steered his group of impoverished younger sons in the direction of her well-dowered protégées. Bell was adamant that her protégées needn’t marry. Quent’s friends had still swept them off their feet. Bell had agreed to sponsor Quent’s sisters in society in payment of her losses. Since she would have done so anyway, she’d been quite entertained and thought the outcome fair.
“How can I help you?” she asked when he merely accepted his brandy.
More polite and better dressed than Brummell, with glossy black hair, rugged cheekbones, and a stubbornly square jaw, Lord Quentin Hoyt was a man who caused ladies to swoon when they spoke of him.
Unfortunately, all society knew he was a younger son of a crude Scot and that he’d made his fortune in trade, so the marriageable maidens swooned in private.
He sipped his drink and studied her. Bell couldn’t tell if the appreciation in those sinfully lashed eyes was for her or Edward’s French brandy, but she wasn’t the sort to swoon in any case. Men could be pleasing to look upon, but she knew their danger and kept her distance, even if this one made her blood race.
“You think I shouldn’t be eager to gaze upon your rapturous beauty after so long a time apart?” he asked, his damned whiskey-brown eyes dancing in amusement.
Quent’s normal mien was businesslike, efficient, and often impatient. He seldom laughed. That he did so now, however discreetly, stirred Bell’s wish that he could be anyone but who he was. Lord Quentin Hoyt was… all sumptuous male. He was hard not to notice.
He created urges that Edward had seldom generated. She resented that.
“If you truly admired rapturous beauty, you’d escort that bird-brained but gorgeous Lady Edith about town and adorn your home with gilt and murals,” she retorted. “Do not tease, Quent. I am out of my depth and in dire need of masculine knowledge. Would you set your circle of friends to helping me find a tutor? All my friends are either elderly or out of town, it seems.”
“A tutor?” He raised a skeptical eyebrow. “You plan on learning Latin and Greek?”
“Stop it,” she ordered in annoyance, pouring sherry for herself. “You collect gossip worse than any old biddy. Fitz will have told you about my sisters’ arrival.”
She wasn’t entirely certain she should mention Kit, but Quent would know soon enough, and she had no better way of explaining her need for a tutor. “My father apparently arranged to keep his title and our wretched plot of Irish countryside out of the crown’s hands by finally producing an heir. I’ll not have the boy grow up as ignorant as we did.”
“I had an excellent education,” Quent reminded her, amusement still flitting about his lips. “But I take your point. I assume you’re saying that the next Earl of Wexford will be as dependent on Belden wealth as the last.”
Bell flung up a hand in despair that he still rode this old argument. “Honestly, I don’t know why I bother confiding in you. Money is the root of all evil, not the answer to prayers. Wealth exists to help people lead better lives, and yes, I’ll certainly see that my siblings have a happier one than I did. Go away. I’ll find a tutor on my own.”
She opened the study door and rudely gestured for him to depart.
He didn’t move but continued sipping the brandy and eyeing her with interest. Bell was too furious with him to preen. She’d been walking on pins and needles all day, frantically trying to deal with the immediate while fretting about the future. She had hoped for a little support. She really should have known Quent would strike at her weakness.
“I’ll have three tutors on your doorstep by day after next,” he said, as if promising a walk in the park. “I trust you have the documents proving the boy’s legitimacy and will file them in a timely manner. I don’t expect anyone to be foolish enough to fight his claim, but his future should be assured at the earliest possible instant.”
Well, yes, there were those stupid enough to fight Kit’s claim, if they thought they could do so without too much trouble. That was beside the point.
Bell sighed in exasperation at his interference. “I am not a simpleton. My father had his affairs fully documented.” And those damned documents were the source of her current distress, but she would go to the courts as soon as her solicitor arranged it. “I merely need help with a tutor, not my affairs.”
“Summerby is handling them?” he inquired. “He’s a good fellow. I’ll check in on him to be certain everything is filed appropriately.”
That was the absolute last thing she wanted him to do. “I will thank you for the tutors, should they arrive, but I will not thank you for interfering in my business.” She tapped her foot impatiently. “I’m quite capable of dealing with my solicitor on my own, and I do not appreciate you assuming otherwise.”
Just once, once, she would like for a man to recognize her intelligence and capability. Why on earth she expected respect from this domineering horse’s arse made her doubt her own intellect. Just because Quent was bigger than everyone he knew didn’t mean he was smarter.
“It’s unusual for a woman to be appointed guardian, that’s all I’m saying,” Quent said with a dismissive gesture of his snifter. “As legal representative for the family’s wellbeing, I’m simply trying to look after your interests.”
Bell swallowed her panic to respond tartly. “No, you’re worrying that I won’t have time for Sally and Margaret next season. I can assure you, I am perfectly capable of setting up my sisters and shepherding yours at the same time. It is only male pursuits that cause me consternation. Kit needs men in his life, and I have not had a gentleman’s education or experience to know which tutors are best.”
“Or the example of a good father, understood,” he said, no longer looking amused. “You scaled the precarious ladder of society at the delicate age of eighteen and now command the top with the highest sticklers. Since Edward’s death, you have had to learn how to manage his investments and households on your own, and you have done so superbly. I only wish to relieve you of unnecessary burdens. It will be a pleasure to make your family’s acquaintance. I’ll see myself out.” He set down the empty glass and bowed.
She could smell his rich shaving soap and the clove he must have chewed after dinner. His muscled arm nearly brushed her breast as he passed her in the narrow doorway. She had to fight not to inhale sharply at the electric tingle created by his proximity.
Quent recognized how hard she’d worked to reach respectable security! She wasn’t certain that Edward had ever noticed or appreciated her efforts to become the perfect marchioness.
Lord Quentin was the only man she knew who could unsettle her just by his existence. She resented that with all her heart and soul. If she were still the passionate sort, she’d smash the lovely crystal glass over his head—or fling her arms around his competent shoulders and weep.
She was not that lost child any longer, and she never would be again.