Authors: Anna Bradley
The very portrait of desireÂ .Â .Â .
Lord Carlisle had been so determined to walk with her! And not just talk to her, but flirt with her. Oh, she may be innocent by
standards, but she knew when a gentleman was flirting with her, especially when he did it as audaciously as Lord Carlisle had. He'd asked her to comment on his
, for heaven's sake! He'd stared into her eyes as if he could drown in their depths. It was ridiculous.
Delia clutched her pencil as she remembered. Ah, now she could see why the gazelle was so nervous. The poor thing. A fiendish predator was creeping up behind her. This hideous creature looked like a man, with a man's body and a man's face and distinctive wavy dark hair, but it had a tiger's claws and very sharp-looking teeth in its gaping mouth.
Delia stopped sketching and studied her page. A quiet laugh escaped her. Oh, it was a sketch worthy of Rowlandson himself! She'd have to burn it, of course, since the dreadful tiger bore far too recognizable a resemblance to Lord Carlisle.
She was busily adding a bushy tiger's tail when all at once her amusement turned to uneasiness. She stared at the tiger and the gazelle. Something was wrong.
Suddenly all the blood drained from her face. Oh, no. It couldn't be! Gentlemen of the
were idle, vain, and selfish, but even Lord Carlisle couldn't be as wicked as thatÂ .Â .Â .
An imprint of Penguin Random House LLC
375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014
A WICKED WAY TO WIN AN EARL
A Berkley Sensa
tion Book / published by arrangement with the author
Copyright Â© 2015 by Anna Bradley.
A Season of Ruin
by Anna Bradley copyright Â© 2016 by Anna Bradley.
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eBook ISBN: 978-0-698-40612-4
Berkley Sensation mass-market edition / November 2015
Cover art by Gregg Gulbronson.
Cover design by George Long.
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
O MY THREE INSPIRATIONS:
My husband, Brad, who looks just like the hero on this cover,
My daughter, Annabel, queen of all she surveys,
And especially to my son, Eli, who loves stories, and thinks like a writer.
My deepest thanks to my agent, the divine Marlene Stringer, my wonderful editor, Cindy Hwang, and all the talented staff at Berkley. Special thanks to those readers who took a chance on a new author, and, of course, my very first reader, my sister Jennifer.
“Hurry, Caroline! Oh, please do hurry!” Millicent Chase cast an uneasy look over her shoulder as she rushed down the empty corridor.
Caroline Swan placed a firm hand on Millicent's arm to keep her from breaking into a run. “Millie! Someone will notice if we dash about. They won't be looking for you. Not yet.”
Click. Click. Click
. The heels of Millicent's elegant silver slippers made a distinct patter on the marble floors. Despite Caroline's warning, the patter only quickened. Millicent lowered the hood of her black velvet cloak as she hurried down the hallway. It was an unusually deep one, and the luxurious black jet beadwork sewn lavishly around the hood's edges glittered even in the dim light of the corridor.
The young ladies ducked into a shallow alcove just off the main passage. It was a servant's passageway, but as it didn't lead directly from the kitchens to the ballroom, it
would be deserted tonight. Better yet, it let out right into the dark mews at the back of the town house.
“Just here, Caroline.” Millicent pulled her friend into the alcove and turned to face her, glancing over Caroline's shoulder to make sure they hadn't been followed. She put her hands up to her flushed cheeks. “Goodness, I'm nervous!” She reached for the black mask that hid her face, which was sewn with some of the same jet beads that adorned the hood. Her fingers shook.
Caroline took Millicent's hands gently in her own and lowered them to her sides. “Let me.” She removed the mask and unbuttoned Millicent's cloak. Millicent stood as docile as a child as Caroline freed her from the enveloping garment.
“Millie, IÂ .Â .Â .” Caroline hesitated, the cloak clutched in her hands. “We may not speak for some time, and IÂ .Â .Â .”
Millicent's eyes misted with tears. She reached down and grasped Caroline's cold fingers. “You're my dearest friend, Caroline, and I won't ever forget what you've done for me tonight. I'll miss you terribly. But surely we'll see each other again.” Her voice rose hopefully. “The
has a short memory for scandal.”
But a long memory for insult and social humiliation.
Caroline didn't say it. There wasn't any point. Millicent had made up her mind, and things had gone too far for her to turn back now. There would be consequences for her actions tonight. Millicent knew it. She'd accepted it. Caroline studied her friend's face and smiled. She saw no regret in Millie's dark, famously blue eyes.
Caroline squeezed the slim fingers that clutched her own and smiled. “Here, give me the mask and help me tie it.”
Millicent handed her the mask and helped Caroline tie the silken cord at the back; then she held out the cloak and Caroline slipped her arms into the voluminous folds. The
black velvet billowed around her, easily concealing her gown.
Millicent arranged the hood over her friend's fair hair, then stood back and studied the effect. The girls were a similar size, both of them tall and slim. The hood came down low over Caroline's face and completely disguised her hair. The domino mask didn't hide the hazel eyes that could never be mistaken for Millicent's blue ones, but it didn't matter. There was no one to notice.
Millicent grasped Caroline's shoulders. “It will do very well. Do the best you can not to draw attention to yourself and no one will be the wiser for at least several hours.”
“What about Lord Carlisle?” Caroline asked, suddenly nervous. “What shall I do if he engages me in conversation? Won't he notice if we dance together?”
Millicent shook her head, but she didn't answer, and after a moment Caroline nodded. Lord Carlisle wouldn't attempt to engage his fiancÃ©e in conversation. He wouldn't look into her eyes and wonder why they were no longer blue. He wouldn't look into her eyes at all.
Caroline straightened her shoulders and smiled. “Well,” she said, making a valiant attempt at merriment. “I'm the luckiest girl at the ball. Every young lady here wishes she were Millicent Chase.”
But Millicent didn't smile. Instead, her mouth twisted bitterly. For the past few months she'd been the most sought-after young lady in London. Every debutante dreamed of being the belle of her season, but Caroline knew they hadn't been two weeks into the season before Millicent felt like a fox cornered by hounds.
“That will be true for approximately three more hours. When the truth is revealed, CarolineÂ .Â .Â .” Millicent began, but then she stopped, as if she weren't sure what to say.
But Caroline was under no illusions about her part in the
drama that would unfold at midnight. One didn't betray Hart Sutherland on a whim. Not under any circumstances. Still, she brushed Millicent's concern aside with a wave of her hand. “I'll manage it, Millie. Please be careful yourself. But I'm not too worried for you, for I know Captain Somerset appreciates the value of his burden.”
Millicent pressed her damp cheek against Caroline's. “Good-bye.” The click of her slippers echoed in the dim hallway as she disappeared around the corner.
Caroline's heart gave a painful squeeze. Tonight would live forever in the memory of Millicent's family and friends as the night she gave up everything for the mad adventure of a lifetime.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Lady Hadresham gazed down at the ballroom from her vantage point on the balcony, a satisfied smile on her face. Mrs. Gisborne's peacock plumes wilted in the heat. Ladies young and old clutched their glasses of champagne as though a drought had descended upon London. They fluttered their fans to and fro in a fruitless effort to cool their cheeks and dry their faces. Couples twirled gingerly on the dance floor, aware one missed step would send them all atilt and they'd scatter like a line of dominoes tweaked by a careless finger.
As usual, it was an intolerable crush. No one wanted to miss Lord and Lady Hadresham's annual masque ball. It was the
's last chance to strut and preen before they scurried off to their country houses, rats abandoning the sinking ship that was London after the season ended.
Behind gloved hands and painted silk fans the gossip flowed steadily, buoyed along by wave after wave of French champagne. Lips to ear. Lips to ear.
That gown! Whatever made her decide to wear that shade of green with her sallow complexion?
It curled and drifted, clinging to the smoke that lingered over the billiards table:
You might have a chance with her, old boy, for I hear Lord Weymouth is tiring of herÂ .Â .Â .
It was delivered in whispers and snickers by the debutantes and traded like currency at the card tables:
Another season and still no offer for poor Miss Chatsworth. My dear, this is her sixth season! How sadÂ .Â .Â .
Lady Hadresham's eyes moved over the crush of people and the smile at the corners of her pretty mouth grew ever more complacent.
The Chase family was here. They stood near the terrace with Anne Sutherland, Lady Carlisle, and her eldest son, Hart, now Earl of Carlisle. Even masked, they were unmistakable. They weren't inconvenienced by the crush of people. The cool air coming through the door wafted over them as if on command. It was without a doubt the one comfortable spot in the entire ballroom, but no one questioned their right to it. They were the Chases and the Sutherlands, after all. It was as it should be.
The engagement of the season would be announced at midnight. At the moment of unmasking, Lady Hadresham would be immortalized as London's premier hostess.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The light from the ballroom chandeliers drifted out onto the stairs leading up to Lord and Lady Hadresham's town house, but it was no match for the dense London fog. The night swallowed the light a few steps from the doorway. Had anyone been watching the mews, they would have caught only a glimpse of a young lady, hatless and without a cloak, before she melted into the shadows.
Like the young lady, the carriage was unobtrusive. Black, with no crest. It could have been any carriage on any street in London. As the young lady approached, a tall silhouette
leapt from the open door and wrapped a cloak tenderly about her shoulders. The two figures melted together until no light or shadow was visible between them.
As one, they ascended the carriage. The door closed with a quiet click, and the driver brought the ribbons down over the horses' backs.