In this scene, which did not make the final cut, it was Quinton who kidnaps Belle and absconds with her to Scotland to be married over the anvil. In the end, I decided that the villain needed to be the one to take Belle away, and that Quinn should be the knight on his horse, riding to rescue Belle. But this scene shows the apex of animosity between the two men...a tension that has been building between them since the moment they meet.
Damn that woman.
Unable to remain in the house a moment longer, knowing that Belle was in her room only a few doors down the hall from his and just as determined as ever to marry Bletchley in the morning, Quinn stomped into his boots and stalked outside.
Never, never in his life had he come across a woman so aggravating, obstinate, and stubborn.
But then, never in his life had he come across a woman so alluring, beautiful, and seductive.
And curse both of them for being so blasted senseless!
He strode out into the pre-dawn darkness and turned his collar against the cold. Good Lord, what more did she want from him? He’d given her everything he could…a way out of marriage to Bletchley, a way to stay here in Cumbria. For Christ’s sake, he’d even proposed! But she’d rejected all of it. Especially the proposal. He would have suspected that she’d refused just to spite his intentions to help her, except that he’d held her trembling and vulnerable in his arms. And she certainly hadn’t pretended that.
Behind him as he walked aimlessly toward the stables, the house was quiet and dark, although he knew that Belle was still awake, most likely still crying, and he couldn’t bear the thought of her in pain.
Even now, her words echoed through his head. You don’t love me, Quinn…And you should love the woman you marry. For one desperate moment when she’d said that, he almost blurted out that he did.
Of course he loved her. A woman as challenging, independent, brilliant, and strong as the Bluebell—how could he not love her, especially now that he’d glimpsed the real woman beneath the bookish façade? But he couldn’t admit to loving her, knowing that revealing his feelings would make no difference. How could it, when he was destined for America and she was meant to remain here?
That was the problem. For the past two years, he’d planned to leave for America, to create for himself the life that social class and tradition denied him in England. If he stayed here, he would always be known as the Duke of Trent’s youngest brother, and he would never know for certain if the success he found was due to his own hard work or because of Sebastian. His rationale was self-centered and arrogant, he knew that, yet he still wanted to prove himself. Leaving was the only way he knew to do that.
Worse, there wasn’t even time to consider a different path. If he didn’t leave tomorrow, he wouldn’t reach the Carolinas until after the deadline. He would lose the claim he’d made with the broker in Charleston, and the land he’d wanted would go to another.
But if he did leave, then Belle would also go to another.
Christ! He ran a hand through his hair in frustration as he walked through the shadows. Even now he wanted to march straight back to the house, break down her door, and shake sense into her. But it was too late. He knew when he left her room that he’d be leaving her life, because he couldn’t bear the thought of seeing her married in the morning to another man. Hearing her promise her vows to Bletchley would end him.
The situation was impossible. He couldn’t stay here, and she wouldn’t leave. He’d found a way to give her a home in Cumbria, but she wanted only Glenarvon. He loved her enough to offer marriage, and she…
Loved him enough to let him go.
He froze in mid-step, the realization rushing through him like ice water. The Bluebell…loved him? Good Lord, was that even possible?
She’d never said it, never so much as even hinted at it. In fact, the little bluestocking was adamant that nothing stop him from leaving with his original plans intact, to the point that she’d refused the one solution to all her problems. The same solution she’d so immodestly proposed his first night at Glenarvon, and the one thing she wanted more than anything…except, apparently, for him to achieve his own dreams.
He turned back toward the house. He damned well would storm into her bedroom now, chopping down the bloody door with an axe if he had to—
A movement in the shadows behind the stables caught his attention, and he stopped.
No one should have been there at this hour, not even the grooms and workers who had all gone to bed hours ago. And he doubted that there was another man out prowling the grounds at Glenarvon tonight who wanted to wring the neck of the stubborn woman he loved.
Careful not to be seen, Quinn moved silently toward the stables. He flattened himself against the stone wall and slid slowly forward.
The clouds overhead parted, and in the faint moonlight, Quinn saw Harold Bletchley leaning against the closed stable door as arrogantly as if he already owned the place. Knowing Bletchley, the bastard was there to take stock of the property to make certain he wasn’t cheated out of a single horse.
Beside him stood another man, at least six-feet tall and broad-shouldered, with muscular arms that bulged beneath his coat. Quinn would have bet every penny he possessed that this man with Bletchley was the muscle behind the destruction of the irrigation ditch gate, as well as the one who started the fire in the hay barn. Belle was right about one thing—Bletchley was too much of a dandy to do such dirty work himself. But Quinn knew he was just enough of a coward to hire this man to do it for him.
“…don’t need to do anymore,” Bletchley muttered to the hired thug. “In three hours, the place is mine.”
“One more couldn’t hurt,” the other man rejoined, spitting on the ground. “Just to make your point.”
“The hay barn made my point quite well, I think.” Arrogance reeked from his voice. “That harridan should know by now that she’s not competent to run this estate. She’ll be begging to turn it over to my control within a fortnight.”
“An’ if yer plan don’t work?”
“Then I’ll have need of your services again. But I am certain that as her husband I can persuade her to hand over the estate.”
“An’ if she don’t? Ye kin she’s a hard-headed mule, that one.”
“I’ll make her.”
Quinn clenched his fists at the cold brutality of the threat.
“But it won’t come to that. She’s not stupid. She’ll understand the benefit of giving me what I want.” Bletchley smiled wickedly, his bared teeth shining white in the moonlight. “At nine o’clock, I get Glenarvon.”
“That’s not all yer gettin’,” the thug added, and Quinn’s stomach sickened at the lecherous tone in the man’s voice. “A mouth on ‘er all right, but she’s pretty ‘nough to ignore whate’er she’s sayin’ when ye got them skirts over ‘er head!”
Quinn’s gut tightened with murderous rage.
“I suspect you’re right. She might be fun for a go or two.” Bletchley laughed. “But once I’ve gotten the estate, I’ll send her to Newcastle and put her out of my hair.”
The thug smiled, the moonlight showing black holes in his toothless grin. “An’ fetch Miss Addie t’ Kinnybroch.”
“A married gentleman never brings his mistress to his manor house.” Bletchley had the spine to pretend offense at such a thing. Then he smiled. “Miss Adeline will live here at Glenarvon. I’ll sell the land but keep the house.”
The thug laughed raucously at that, and Quinn fought back the urge to rush forward and smash his fist into the man’s mouth and remove what few teeth he had left.
“I kin we’re done fer th’ night, then.” The man wiped his hands on his shirt.
“Stop by Kinnybroch the day after tomorrow, and I’ll have your payment waiting for you.”
“Ye’d demmed well better!” The man laughed and slapped Bletchley good-naturedly on the back. “Or ‘twill be yer hay barn I burn down next.”
The thug walked away into the darkness and toward the road leading to the village. When he was out of earshot, Bletchley cursed at him and stormed off toward his one-horse gig waiting at the rear of the stable.
Quinn stepped out of the shadows. It was time he saved Bell, once and for all.
“Bletchley,” he called out.
He startled, spinning around in surprise. When he saw Quinn, his face hardened in the moonlight. “Oh, for Christ’s sake, it’s you. Haven’t you left yet?”
“I have a matter to discuss with you.” Keeping his voice far calmer than he felt, he approached slowly, his hands in readied fists at his sides.
“Which is?” Bletchley demanded.
“You aren’t going to be at the church at nine o’clock.” The warning sounded quietly against the still night, but the threat was clear.
“And jilt my land-owning fiancée?” Bletchley scoffed sarcastically. “What kind of gentleman would that make me?”
“The kind still breathing.”
Bletchley paused for a beat, as if sizing up Quinn’s full intent. Then he laughed. “Oh, I’ll be there, all right. You should come, too. I want to see the look on your face when I kiss her on the church steps.”
“The hell you—”
Without warning, Bletchley grabbed the whip from the gig and struck it at Quinn. The tip caught him across the shoulder, just missing his face.
Quinn lunged. He lowered his shoulder to plow into Bletchley’s stomach and send the man flailing backward. Bletchley dropped the whip and reached frantically under the gig’s seat and the gun Quinn knew the coward most likely carried with him. But Quinn shoved him away, forcing him to stagger back several yards from the gig and the skittish horse which threw back its head to fight against the rope tying him to the fence.
In the melee of flying fists, Quinn landed a punch to Bletchley’s jaw and felt a surge of satisfaction. He’d knock the bastard senseless if he had to in order to keep Belle safe, abhorring the thought of her lying with any other man but him. Running the estate with any other man. Giving her heart to any other.
Bletchley’s fist caught him in the mouth.
Quinn stumbled back as he tasted the hot blood on his tongue and felt the rising bruises on his cheek and jaw from lucky punches Bletchley had landed in the scuffle. His left eye stung from the blood which dripped into it from the cut at his brow, and he panted fast and hard. But he wouldn’t lose Belle to this man. Not tonight. Not ever.
Bletchley heaved one last, desperate swing of his fist, and Quinn ducked, the blow sailing through the air. But Quinn fired back, and his hard punch dropped Bletchley to the ground.
The man lay motionless in the dirt while Quinn doubled over with exhaustion, gulping great mouthfuls of air to catch his breath.
Then Bletchley sat up and laughed at him, a victorious look on his bruised and bloodied face.
“You may have beaten me, Carlisle, but I’ve still won,” he cackled, wiping the blood from his chin with his forearm even as Quinn towered over him, waiting for an excuse—any excuse—to slam his fist into the man’s face again. “I’m marrying her in three hours, just as planned, and I’m claiming this estate.” He wiped the blood from his fingers onto his breeches. “And there’s not a damned thing you can do to stop me.”
Quinn glared furiously at him, his hands still clenched into fists as they rested on his knees despite his bloodied knuckles. He’d never felt more frustrated and powerless in his life. The bastard was right, damn him. Belle had made her decision, and there was no talking her out of it.
“But don’t worry.” Bletchley panted heavily as he climbed to his feet and smiled devilishly, blood glistening on his teeth in the moonlight. “I’m certain she’ll be thinking of you when I plow her.”
Quinn slammed his fist into Bletchley’s stomach. The man doubled over with a loud whoosh of air and reeled backward, then collapsed into a half-conscious lump on the ground. This time he knew better than to get up.
Muttering a string of vicious curses beneath his breath, Quinn bit back the pain throbbing at his own ribs and untied the horse. Then he grabbed the pistol out from beneath the seat and heaved it into the darkness as hard as he could, losing it among the shrubs of the rear garden. He hoisted Bletchley to his feet and flung the man onto the gig, then slapped the horse’s hindquarters. The horse took off with a jump, rattling the gig behind him as he fled down the lane toward home.
Quinn stood in the stable yard until the gig disappeared from sight and stillness once more fell over Glenarvon.
As he struggled to catch his breath and slow the pounding of his heart, blood dripping from his cut lip, and his eye already swollen and bruising rapidly, he thought of Belle. He couldn’t let her marry that bastard—wouldn’t let her. But he knew how much Glenarvon meant to her, and now to him, too, despite a future of his own awaiting him in America, the one he’d always wanted. But it would also be one without her.
He knew then exactly what he wanted to do.
It was time he left England.
Belle stared at her reflection in the mirror.
Her face pale and ghostly, with her eyes red-rimmed from tears, she looked as if she were going to a funeral rather than to her own wedding. Only the tiny red flowers embroidered onto the dress of pale yellow satin and the headband of matching red roses in her hair gave any hint of sunshine and happiness. But even that was a lie because she’d cried nearly the entire time that her maid dressed her and fixed her hair this morning, so much so that she’d even driven Lady Ainsley out of her room. Although Lady Ainsley claimed she was going to find Quinton to make certain her nephew was properly dressed and ready to escort them to the church, Belle knew the truth. The poor woman was simply unable to stand her sobs a moment longer. Just as she knew Quinn wouldn’t be found.
Quinn…She pressed her hand against her chest where she could feel the beautiful pearls he’d given her lying hidden beneath her high-necked dress. She couldn’t bear to take them off. Only her maid knew they were there, and she’d sworn the woman to secrecy. No one else would ever know that on her wedding day she wore the most precious gift she would ever receive from the man she loved while she promised herself a man whom she never would.
By now, he was most likely halfway to Liverpool, well on his way to America where he belonged, where he would carve out a successful life for himself and achieve his dreams.
And she would never see him again.
Oh God, how much it hurt!
She squeezed her eyes shut against the pain. Losing him had been made worse by spending all those precious hours in his arms last night. When she’d been with him, it had been so easy to forget that morning was coming, so easy to pretend that he loved her…until he proposed, and the stark reminder of how little she meant to him beyond friendship hit her full force. Even now the memory of it stole her breath away. And all she could do was refuse, knowing it would kill her to marry him only to have to let him go.
Behind her, she heard the door open softly, and her heart sank. Lady Ainsley had come to take her to the church.
“Is it time to leave?” she forced out in a trembling voice.
She whirled around. “Quinton!”
He still wore his clothes from last night, but now he was filthy. Beneath his dirt-smeared coat, his bloodied shirt was ripped down the front. Harsh bruises and cuts marred his handsome face, and his left eye was nearly swollen shut.
“My God,” she whispered, reaching a shaking hand toward his bruised eye. “What on earth happened to you?”
“I told you,” he replied. “You are not marrying Bletchley.”
Frustration overwhelmed her, and a fresh tear fell down her cheek. Not this, not again—and certainly not now, when she was due in the church in half an hour. “I have no choice, you know that.” She reached for her bouquet of red roses and yellow daisies sitting on her dressing table. “And you can’t go to the church looking like that.”
“I have no intention of placing one foot inside that church.” He stepped toward her. “And neither will you.”
“Quinton, please stop—”
In one swift move, he grabbed her into his arms and tossed her over his shoulder like a sack of flour. The bouquet dropped to the floor. “No.”
She gasped. “Have you completely lost your mind? Put me down!”
“No,” he repeated calmly and carried her out the door.
“Quinton James Carlisle!” She wiggled frantically, but he only shifted her on his shoulder to keep her in place and kept walking toward the stairs. “Put me down this instant!”
“You are not marrying Bletchley, and that’s final.”
“Please!” she pleaded, dangling down his back as he started down the stairs. She beat her hands against him, but she might have been nothing more than an annoying gnat for all he noticed. “Let me down, or I’ll scream!”
“Go ahead, I don’t mind.”
“Uggh!” she growled out in aggravated frustration. “Put! Me! Down!”
“You’ve left me no choice, so I’m kidnapping you,” he answered resolutely. “I’m tired of tilting at windmills, Annabelle.” He rounded the first floor landing and started down to the front foyer. “This time, I’m slaying real giants.”
Quixote? He had lost his mind! He was going to ruin her wedding and cost her Glenarvon, and when he sailed for America, she would have nothing…not her home, not her reputation, not the man she loved.
“Quinton—Belle?” Lady Ainsley hurried into the foyer just as they reached the front door. Belle twisted herself up in time to see a startled, confused look of bewilderment cross the viscountess’s face. “What on earth…?”
Ha. Quinton was in for it now! Lady Ainsley had pushed Belle for this wedding, and since Quinton’s arrival harassed him nearly nonstop about not interfering. He’d be forced to set her down now and let her marry as planned.
“Aunt Agatha.” He stopped but swung around to face her, which meant Belle faced the open front door, through which she could see a waiting carriage with Angus Burns perched on the driver’s seat. “You look lovely this morning.”
“And you look an absolute fright, my boy.” She paused. “What on earth are you two doing?”
Belle tried to twist herself around to beg Lady Ainsley for help, but seeing past Quinton’s broad back was impossible, and she gave up with a defeated groan. Angus Burns only grinned at her from the carriage.
“Annabelle’s no longer marrying Bletchley,” Quinn explained with all the casualness of commenting upon the weather, as if absconding with another man’s bride was an everyday occurrence for him. “She’s marrying me instead.”
“What?” Lady Ainsley gasped.
“We’re eloping to Scotland—”
“We are not!” Belle protested.
Quinn slapped her bottom, silencing her. “We’re eloping to Scotland. So tell the vicar that the ceremony is off.”
“Well,” Lady Ainsley sighed with exasperated relief, “it’s about time!”
“Pardon? What?” Quinn and Annabelle exclaimed simultaneously.
“I had hoped for this.” Joy rang in her voice. “It was all I could do to bring you two together these past few weeks, and I nearly ran out of time!”
Stunned, Belle couldn’t believe her ears. “But—” She twisted in frustration, wondering if he would release her if she sank her teeth into his buttocks. “But you kept us apart!”
“My dear,” the viscountess explained patiently as if the answer were the most obvious thing in the world, “what’s the best way to ensure that two young people will be together except to forbid it?”
That bit of illogic reasoning silenced her. She dangled there, speechless.
“You pushed marriage to Bletchley on her,” Quinn argued, just as surprised as Belle. “You kept insinuating that Bletchley was the right man for her.”
“To make you jealous, my boy!” She barked out a self-pleased laugh. “Oh, you should have seen your face every time Bletchley walked into the room—I thought you might just kill him!”
“So did I,” Quinn muttered.
“And I see you tried to do exactly that last night.”
Quinn fought with Sir Harold? Was that how he’d gotten all those cuts and bruises? Belle wiggled on his shoulder to try to look at his face, only earning another slap on the bottom for her trouble.
She fumed. “Quinton, stop that!”
“Your arrival at Glenarvon was perfect timing, if I do say so myself,” Lady Ainsley commented smugly, turning her head nearly upside-down to arch an imperious brow at Belle. “I’ve been scheming for this for years.”
“You’ve been—what?” Belle squeaked out.
“So when I learned that Belle had invited you here, I couldn’t have been more pleased. I’d nearly done the same thing myself!”
Belle couldn’t believe what she was hearing. Lady Ainsley had known?
“You’ve always been my favorite nephew, Quinton.” She heaved a sigh as she straightened out of Belle’s view, then warned, “Don’t muck things up now.”
“Thank you.” Quinn kissed his aunt on the cheek, then he hauled Belle out the door into the bright morning. “Don’t wait up!”
He strode with her toward the waiting carriage and dumped her unceremoniously inside, her cape flipping up over her face. As she struggled to pull it down, he slammed the door closed and pounded on the roof to signal to Angus, who started the carriage off before she had the chance to leap to freedom.
“Stop this carriage!” she demanded.
“No,” he answered calmly, settling back against the squabs on the bench across from her.
Outside the windows, the countryside whizzed by as the horses raced down the rut-strewn lane toward the road, tossing them wildly about inside the carriage but not slowing Angus down in his mission to get them across the border to Gretna Green as soon as possible. Or kill them in the process, Belle thought angrily as she grabbed onto the handhold to keep from flying off the seat.
“Stop!” She pounded her fist against the roof. When that drew no response, she leaned out the window and shouted up at Angus, “Stop this carriage, right now!”
“Ye kin I cannot do that, miss,” Angus yelled back.
“Oh, for the love of God,” she groaned, frustrated tears gathering at her lashes. “Why not?”
“Lord Quinton said not to stop fer any reason ‘til we reach the anvil at Gretna Green.”
“But you work for me!”
“Nay, I work fer yer husband now, m’lady.”
“He is not going to be my husband!”
When Angus said nothing, only flicking the whip to encourage the team to go faster as they turned onto the main road heading north, she groaned and sank back onto her seat.
Across from her, Quinn grinned and folded his arms across his chest, settling in for the ten-mile ride.
“You’ve ruined everything now.” She swiped an angry hand at her eyes. Odd, how she thought she didn’t have any more tears left to cry, but she hadn’t expected him to ruin her life by resorting to kidnapping. “Harold’s waiting at the church right now—the whole village is. And if I don’t show up, I lose Glenarvon.”
“You’ll keep Glenarvon because you’re marrying me.”
Her chest squeezed painfully, so hard she lost her breath. “I will not marry you.”
“Why not?” Then he shrugged with a smugly confident grin. “After all, you love me.”
She gasped at his simple statement, her tear-blurred eyes growing wide at the self-assured casualness with which he laid bare her soul. “And you’re going to America,” she breathed out, so softly that the words were barely heard above the rumble of the wheels beneath them.
His blue eyes flickered at that, the devil most likely noting that she’d not denied her feelings for him. “Not without you.”
“I’m not leaving Glenarvon.”
“Then I’m not going to America.”
She turned her face away, to stare out the window as a tear fell down her cheek, unable to bear looking at him. “You have to go,” she whispered.
“No, I don’t.”
She rolled her tear-blurred eyes. Oh, this was going to be the longest ten miles of her life! “Yes, you—” She choked on the tightening knot in her throat. “It’s your dream. It’s everything you’ve ever wanted.”
“Not everything,” he corrected gently, his deep voice wrapping around her like velvet. “Because I also want you.”
Then she knew she couldn’t look at him without falling to pieces. “But it’s what I want for you,” she admitted softly. “I won’t to be the reason you gave up your dream.”
“But you’re a damnably fine reason, Bluebell.”
She wretchedly shook her head. “You feel sorry for me.”
“I truly don’t.”
A sob tore from her lips. Of course, he did! That was why he’d stayed at Glenarvon for the past month, why he’d tried so hard to find a way to keep her from marrying Harold—
“I love you, Annabelle.”
Her eyes flew open wide, and she blinked rapidly to clear away the blurry tears, not daring to believe…Yet he looked back at her so earnestly, so vulnerably that her heart somersaulted, stealing her breath away.
“And I know you love me, too,” he added as he slid across the compartment to sit next to her. She trembled as he took her hand and slowly rolled her long glove down her arm and off, then lifted it to his lips to place a delicate kiss at her fingertips. “Any couple who torments each other as much as you and I do—it has to be love.”
“But you want to go to America.” She couldn’t bear the thought of marrying him, only to lose him later when he sailed for Charleston. She tried to pull her hand away, but he refused to release her. “You’ve always wanted that.”
“And give up a rock-strewn estate with a ruined castle and poor soil good for nothing but grazing goats?”
She bristled at that insult to her home and jutted up her chin. “We raise sheep, not goats!”
He laughed at her consternation and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her up onto his lap as he nuzzled his cheek against her shoulder. “Then we’ll raise sheep, darling. Lots and lots of sheep.”
“Quinton.” His name was a soft chastisement that he would pick now, of all times, to tease her, but she couldn’t bring herself to move from his arms.
“I did want to go to America,” he admitted as he reached up and carefully removed the rose headband from her hair, then slowly pulled out each pin. “I thought I had to in order to make my mark.” He sifted his fingers through her hair and let it fall loose around her shoulders. “But I’ve come to realize that I can do exactly that right here, as well as have the wife and family I’ve always wanted. My future is here, Annabelle. With you.”
He slipped his hand behind her neck and tugged her gently down to take a lingering, soft kiss from her, so tender and loving that she ached from it.
“Together, we can make Glenarvon into everything you’ve always dreamed it could be.” He caressed his thumb across her bottom lip. “Of course, it will help that its size is going to triple.”
“Triple?” She blinked, confused.
“I’m still buying Kinnybroch,” he announced, “and folding its lands into Castle Glenarvon. It not only triples the size of the land we’ll own, it also gets Bletchley out of Cumbria.” His face darkened. “I don’t want that bastard anywhere near you. That’s where I was this morning before I came for you, why I didn’t have time to clean up—I’d roused Bartleby from his bed and put down the first claim to the bank sale on the estate.”
Belle stared at him, her mouth falling open.
He grinned at her. “After all, having a duke for an older brother should be good for something other than getting me blackballed from White’s.”
“He didn’t!” she laughed, tenderly brushing her fingertip along the cut at his lip. “His own brother?”
He crooked up a brow. “Would you want me as a member of your exclusive club?”
“Yes,” she whispered breathlessly as she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Very much.”
With a soft sigh, she lowered her head to kiss him. He brushed his lips back and forth tantalizingly across hers, and when the tip of his tongue traced along the seam of her lips, she gladly opened her mouth to return the passion she felt stirring inside him even now in a wildly bouncing carriage in route to the Scottish border.
“I love you, Quinton,” she whispered against his lips.
“I know.” As his mouth slid down her jaw to suck at her earlobe, his hands wandered to her back and quickly unfastened the row of tiny pearl buttons running up the high-necked bodice of her gown. “But don’t ever stop saying that.”
She shivered deliciously as the bodice fell loose around her shoulders and slid part way down her arms, just far enough to expose the top swells of her breasts and the rope of pearls wrapped around her neck.
He inhaled sharply at the sight of her, his gaze staring hungrily at her bosom. “I knew you’d be wearing those beneath your dress.” His voice cracked, “You’re so beautiful, Belle.”
A blush warmed her cheeks and flushed all the way down her neck. “Don’t ever stop saying that,” she repeated back to him as she reached over to pull down the curtain.