A Wicked Way to Win an Earl (11 page)

What would his fingers feel like against her heated skin? Visions of his knowing, teasing hands had haunted her ever since she'd heard that fevered sigh. If he touched her, would she ache for more?

Delia waited, trembling, desperate for him to touch her. Her eyes dropped involuntarily to seek his hands.

His arms were rigid at his sides, his hands clenching into fists and then unclenching, as if he exerted the most unbearable restraint over them. A low, pained sound tore from his throat when he noticed her gaze on them.

She wanted him to touch her.

“Will he . . .” she began, but the words were trapped in her throat. She took a deep breath and tried again. “Will he touch me?” Her voice was the barest whisper.

“He'll want to.” His voice was low, rough. “He may kiss your hands. But a true gentleman will not—”

He broke off then, and shook his head from side to side as if to clear it. There was a long pause while he stared hard at her, his expression lost somewhere between amazement and fury. When he spoke again, it was as if he'd
awakened from a spell. “A true gentleman won't touch you unless he's courting you. At least, that's what I've heard. As you know, Miss Somerset, I'm no gentleman.”

His voice had gone cold.

His sneering, sarcastic tone hit Delia like a physical blow. She instinctively staggered back several steps to get away from him, away from a cold fury she didn't understand. She was stunned, much as she'd been a day ago when the coach had thrown an axle. One minute she'd been admiring the scenery outside the window, and the next she was thrown to the floor, her bones rattling as the coach screeched to a violent stop.

He either didn't notice her dazed expression, or he didn't care. “The secret to flirtation is to keep the illusion intact. Once it's shattered”—his icy gaze locked on her face—“the gentleman may be forced to ask himself some unpleasant questions.” He closed the distance she'd put between them with one long stride. “For instance, I might ask myself why you'd want to flirt with me in the first place.”

His voice was calm, but Delia heard the trace of menace.

To teach you a lesson.
This time she didn't have to struggle to keep the truth to herself.

“You've made it plain you don't like or trust me,” he said when she didn't reply. “You despise the
ton
in general. I must conclude, then, you have your own private reasons for trying to engage my attentions.”

“Why should I like or trust you, Lord Carlisle?” she shot back.

There was a tense pause, then, “You shouldn't.”

“You're full of advice today, my lord.” She struggled to keep her voice from shaking.

He stared at her, his eyes hard and accusing. “What is your game, Miss Somerset?”

“Game?” Her hands fluttered nervously, like a moth too near a candle flame. She shoved them behind her back to
hide their trembling. “I don't know what you mean, my lord.”

It was a lie. She
was
playing a game—the very same game he was playing, except she was on the opposite side of the chessboard. If he won, the
ton
would leave this house party whispering in scandalized delight that the Earl of Carlisle had seduced Millicent Somerset's daughter and avenged the insult offered to his father all those years ago. They'd say the Somersets were no better than they should be, that they'd been sent back to the depths of Surrey where they belonged.

Oh, she'd let him think she could be seduced, that she was swooning with desire for him. He'd believe she was ripe for the plucking, right up to the point when he reached up a hand to grasp the fruit. Then she'd dash away to Surrey with her reputation and innocence intact. Unplucked, as it were.

His eyes narrowed. “I think you do.”

She shrugged, as if she didn't care what he thought. “As you say, my reasons are my own.”

But if she outwitted him . . . ah, if she emerged the victor! An insignificant nobody from some rustic village in God knew where, humbling the powerful and handsome Earl of Carlisle! A Somerset, no less. Then the
ton
would gossip about how history had repeated itself.

“I warn you, Miss Somerset—”

“I'm late for luncheon, my lord,” she said in clipped tones. She didn't want to hear his warning. She might feel compelled to heed it, and it was far too late for that. “I find myself in need of refreshment. Good afternoon.”

She gathered her skirts into her hands and turned to walk away, back straight and chin held high. She didn't turn back to look at him, but she felt his eyes following her every move until she disappeared inside the house.

Chapter Ten

“Never known you to be a liar before, Carlisle.”

Archie took a long, leisurely draw on his cheroot, then blew a wreath of smoke into the air above his head. “You're an unpleasant fellow,” he continued genially. “Ill-tempered. Arrogant. Always winning at billiards. But I've never known you to be a liar before.”

Alec watched the tip of Archie's cheroot glow a hot red in the relative gloom of the study. He and Archie had retired here after what felt like the longest evening of Alec's life.

He sighed. No use fighting it. “What did I lie about, Archie?”

Archie leaned forward in his chair. “Miss Somerset, of course. You told me she was plain. Sharp-tongued and plain.”

Alec rolled his eyes. “I never said—”

“Sharp-tongued and plain,” Archie repeated. “A dreadful combination, you said.”

“What's the matter, Archie?” Alec asked, grinning a
little, despite his annoyance. “Didn't you think she was sharp-tongued?”

Archie sat back in his chair and blew another plume of smoke into the air, considering. “No. She seemed quite sweet. Lovely, really, and she sure as hell isn't plain.”

She
was
sweet. Ruin-a-man-for-other-sweets kind of sweet. Mouthwatering.

“No, she's not plain.” That much was patently obvious.

“Neither is her sister,” Archie said with a roguish grin. “Remarkable-looking girls, both of them.”


Les yeux des feu bleu
,” Alec murmured, feeling foolish even as the words left his mouth.

Archie nodded. “Yes. Complicates things for you, doesn't it?”

“Indeed.” Whatever else she may be, sweet or sharp-tongued, dreadful or lovely, one thing Delia Somerset most assuredly was, was
complicated
.

“Robyn didn't take his eyes off her all evening,” Archie supplied helpfully. “Come to think of it, unless it was to gawk at her sister, neither did Shepherdson.”

Alec's mouth tightened. Shepherdson was fortunate tonight's dinner had been a casual family affair, because he wouldn't have survived additional courses with his limbs intact. Watching Shepherdson ogle and drool like an animal over Delia Somerset made Alec unaccountably furious. Of course, he'd have the same concern for any young lady under his protection.

Of course he would.

Tomorrow he'd speak to his mother about changing the seating arrangements. No matter what kind of mischief she was up to, Miss Somerset didn't deserve to have a drunken fool like Shepherdson leering at her from across the dinner table.

“You looked at her a good deal, too, Carlisle,” Archie observed. His tone was carefully neutral.

Alec leapt from his chair and paced to the fireplace, unable to sit still for one second longer. God, his muscles ached. He'd been as tight as a noose ever since this afternoon in the rose garden. And when had Archie become so bloody perceptive?

Archie startled at the sudden movement. “I'm not blaming you for looking.” He held his hands up defensively. “Any man would.”

“I have to watch her, Archie.” Alec's voice sounded raw even to his own ears. “It's the only way to keep her apart from Robyn.”

He had to watch her. He shouldn't want to watch her.

But he did.

“Not bad work, that,” Archie murmured.

Alec leaned an arm against the mantel. “She's up to something.”

“Up to something?” Archie stared at him, the forgotten cheroot dangling in his fingers. “What does that mean?”

Alec shrugged. “I'm not sure. She flirted with me.”

At least she'd tried to. In spite of his foul mood, Alec grinned. She was hopeless at flirtation, probably because it required some level of deception. It had taken her all of five minutes this afternoon to drop her pretense and blurt out the truth.

Her version of the truth anyway.

“You don't seem too upset about it,” Archie remarked. “You look rather pleased, in fact.”

Alec's grin faded. “It doesn't make sense. Why would she want to flirt with me? What possible purpose could it serve?”

“Maybe she just finds you charming.”

“She doesn't.” That much was certain.

“No. Probably not.” Archie frowned at his cheroot. “Maybe she's angling for a bigger fish.”

Alec was staring into the fire, but at this, his head snapped toward Archie. “What do you mean?”

“Why settle for an earl's younger brother when you may have a chance to hook the earl himself?”

Alec froze. “Why should she think she has a chance to hook me?”

Aside from the fact that I can't take my eyes off her?

Archie gave him a disgusted look, as if Alec were a slow-witted child. “Let's see, Carlisle.” He started ticking points off on his fingers. “Her eyes. Her hair. Her skin. Her figure. Why, her figure alone . . .”

But Alec had stopped listening.

Her mouth.
He closed his eyes.
Good God, her mouth.

“What's the matter with you, Carlisle? Do you have a pain? You look like you're in agony.”

I am in agony.
“I'm fine.”

“Well? Do you think she's fishing for an earl?”

“It's possible. I wouldn't entirely dismiss the idea.”

It did make perfect sense. If that was her object, this game would be over before it began. Whatever she was playing at, it didn't come naturally to her. That put her at a disadvantage, because he was born to play games.

To play them, and to win them.

Miss Somerset was intriguing and desirable, but in the end it didn't make any difference. It complicated matters, yes, but what satisfaction was to be had in a game too easily won? He did like a challenging game of chess, and it would be much more diverting with a living, breathing queen. Or a pawn? Yes. She was a tempting little pawn. He closed his eyes and imagined smooth ivory under his fingertips, except this ivory was warm, soft, translucent skin.

He could never have her, of course. There
were
limits. But fortunately there was a vast uncharted territory between a few harmless kisses and raising the skirts of a chaste young virgin.

Alec excelled at gray areas. He spent a good deal of time there.

He'd teach Miss Somerset a much-needed lesson about playing games with a man like him—that was, a man ruthless in pursuit of his desires, who enjoyed all of the advantages of wealth and social position. But he'd send her back to Surrey with her virginity intact.

Technically intact.

But she'd know he hadn't taken her because he chose not to, not because he couldn't have had her. It would humble her, and perhaps next time she'd know better.

“Maybe she's trying to make Robyn jealous,” Archie said unexpectedly. “Or maybe she's just practicing on you. For when she's alone with Robyn.”

A cold knot of fury settled in Alec's chest. “She's not going to be alone with him. Ever. Robyn can't control himself.”

He didn't mention he'd nearly lost control of himself in the garden with her today. One more breathless sigh or shy smile and he'd have touched her. If he'd touched her, he'd have kissed her, and he wouldn't have been able to stop kissing her.

“You know, Alec,” Archie began, but then paused, as if not sure how to continue.

That caught Alec's attention. Archie very rarely called him by his given name.

“Your father used to say the same thing about you. You resented it bitterly, if you remember.”

Alec's body went rigid. “What the hell does that mean, Archie?” His voice was dangerously quiet.

Archie looked him right in the eye. “Stay out of Robyn's affairs. That's what it means.”

Alec didn't move or speak for several minutes, but then he slowly shook his head. “I can't do that, Archie. I'm responsible for him. For all of them.”

Archie looked hard at him, as if he wanted to say more, but then something like sympathy appeared in his eyes, and he merely nodded.

A tense silence settled over the room while Archie finished his cheroot and Alec stared into the fire. Finally, Archie stirred. “Where is Robyn?”

Alec jerked his chin in the direction of the door. “Playing billiards with Shepherdson.”

“Have the ladies retired for the evening?”

“My sisters and Lily Somerset are strolling in the garden. Miss Somerset retired soon after dinner.” Alec wouldn't be here if she hadn't. No, he'd be trailing after her, like an infant on leading strings. He didn't enjoy the image.

Alec turned from the fire and paced over to the tall glass doors that looked out onto the formal gardens. The cold, wet winter had given way to a glorious spring. The evening was warm for April, and the moon was nearly full. It cast its cool, unearthly light over the rose garden.

How romantic
. It was a perfect setting for Miss Somerset to cast her lures, especially now he'd taught her just how to do it. Robyn would be dazzled, helpless, at the mercy of those brilliant blue eyes and lush pink lips. Alec's hands clenched. Tempting glances, smiles, teasing touches . . .

He'd been staring into the garden, unseeing, when his eye was caught by a flash of deep blue. Blue, in the rose garden? Unless he was mistaken, there were no blue roses.

But Miss Somerset had been wearing a violet blue gown this evening at dinner.

Without a word to Archie, Alec opened the door and slipped out onto the terrace. He searched the muted light of the garden, straining for another flash of what he was certain was a blue silk gown.

She was standing near the center of the garden, facing away from him, partially obscured by a towering rose arbor. Her deep blue gown fluttered and shimmered in the light breeze, and the moon drew gentle fingers of pale light over her smooth white shoulders and neck.

“I thought you'd retired for the evening, Miss Somerset.”

Her slim body stiffened, and a slight tremor shivered down her back. She turned toward him. “I left my sketch book here this afternoon when we . . .” Her voice trailed off. “I came back down to fetch it.” She was holding the book tightly against her bosom, as if for protection.

“You never told me which rose is your favorite.” His voice was at once both soft and rough.

She turned away again to look at the roses. “May I guess yours instead?”

Alec drew a deep breath and held it. She never said what he expected her to say, and he seemed to be always holding his breath when he spoke with her, waiting to hear what she'd say next. Anticipating it.

He moved closer to her, because all at once the distance between them felt unbearable. He was close enough so the edges of his coat brushed against her gown. Alec closed his eyes and breathed in the delicate scent of her hair, so much more tempting than the scent of the roses surrounding them. Jasmine? The faintest hint of honey.

“Please,” he murmured near her ear, not sure anymore what he asked for.

She paused for a moment, and for one delirious instant Alec thought she was savoring his nearness. Then she walked a few steps closer to the center of the garden and came to a halt next to a tall rose with a large, luxuriant red bloom. “This one, my lord.” She turned to face him. “The red. So extravagant.” She ran the tips of her fingers over the lush scarlet petals.

Alec understood immediately. The rose, spectacularly red, with its heavy sweet scent, was the showpiece of the rose garden. All of the other roses were just a prelude to it. Every path in the formal garden ended at this one elaborate bloom.

But Alec didn't spare the ornate red rose a glance. He fixed his eyes on hers, then reached out and wrapped his long fingers around her delicate wrist. He turned and walked
deeper into the garden, past the arbor and into the dark shadows even this bright moon had failed to illuminate.

“Here.” He tightened his fingers around her wrist and drew her forward, close beside him. “This is my favorite.”

This rose hadn't yet fully opened. The outermost petals were still gathered around the center of the bloom, but the barest hint of deep gold was visible inside, peeking shyly out from the protective embrace of the velvety cream-colored petals.

“So delicate,” Alec murmured. “Like honey in a bowl of cream.”

He reached out and stroked a finger against one of the milky white petals. When he drew his hand away, a drop of dew clung to his fingertip. Still clasping her wrist, Alec turned her hand up and slowly drew his damp finger across the center of her palm.

Miss Somerset gasped softly. Desire shot through Alec, so powerful it nearly sent him to his knees. If he ran his tongue over her soft palm, what would she do? Would she cry out? What would she taste like?

Honey and cream.

Alec looked into her face. Her lips had parted and her breathing was shallow and quick. His own breathing had gone ragged.

But her eyes . . . they were enormous in her pale face, and though they were soft with desire, he also saw uncertainty there. It cleared his head just enough for him to be able to look closely at her.

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