A Wicked Way to Win an Earl (2 page)

Chapter One

K
ENT
, 1814

The spring mud seeped through the thin soles of her leather walking boots and began to creep into her stockings. This was no ordinary mud. Before long it would be tickling her garters.

“Blast it,” Delia muttered halfheartedly. She'd known it was a mistake to come here. A mudslide would certainly prove her right, wouldn't it? There was a sort of grim satisfaction in being right, though at the moment she'd settle for being dry. And clean. And home, instead of stranded on a deserted road in Kent, with the sky turning dark over her head, at grave risk of being buried in a freak mudslide.

At the very least she should have listened to her sister Lily and stayed with the carriage, but no, she'd insisted on finding help, and now here she was in an awful predicament—

Delia stopped suddenly, one foot in a puddle. Was that . . . Yes! She crossed her fingers and sent a quick prayer up to heaven the noise she'd just heard was not a bear or some other wild animal.

Were there bears in Kent?

Delia strained to hear, and waited. No, it wasn't a bear. That was, unless the bears in this part of England were prone to high-pitched giggling. She pulled at her foot with some force to dislodge it from the puddle. The sound was coming from farther up the road, around the other side of a bend.

She staggered forward as quickly as her sopping skirts would allow. It was odd to hear giggling on a lonely road at dusk, but she was in no position to be choosy. All she wished for in the world was one single person who could help her find a conveyance. One human being. Was that too much to ask? Anyone would do. Anyone at all.

She trudged around the bend, dragging her hems.

Oh, dear. One did need to be careful what one wished for.

She squinted into the dusk, trying to make sense of the two shapes leaning against a tree. It was a woman, and she was . . . The squint turned into wide-eyed shock. Delia froze, as if the mud at her feet had become quicksand and she was sunk up to her neck in it.

It was a woman, indeed, and she wasn't alone. She was engaged. With a man. A very large man. He was at least a head taller than his companion. If the woman hadn't been giggling, Delia would have missed her entirely, hidden as she was by a pair of impossibly wide shoulders. The man had discarded his coat, which hung carelessly over a wet tree branch. Without it, his white shirt was just visible in the dusk, and under it what appeared to Delia to be miles of muscled arm and long, sinewy back.

Well, he wouldn't need his coat, would he? Not for what he was doing. It would only get in the way. For instance, it might prove difficult for him to trap the woman against the tree. His arms were stretched on either side of her and his palms rested on the trunk beside her head. Delia swallowed. If he wasn't right on top of her like that, his lips might not
be able to reach her throat and neck so easily. And his hands . . .

Delia held her breath as one of the man's hands dropped away from the tree and slipped inside the gaping neckline of the woman's dress to caress her breast.

A hot flush began deep in the pit of Delia's belly. She looked behind her, then back at the scene in front of her, her eyes darting wildly. Was it too late to turn back the way she'd come? She'd decided in favor of the mudslide and the bears, after all. But her feet refused to move. She was rooted to the spot, unable to tear her eyes away from this man with his muscular back and his bold, seeking hand.

“Alec! Stop that!” The woman let out a little squeal and slapped playfully at the man's hand.

Oh, thank God
. Delia breathed a silent sigh of relief. This reckless young woman was coming to her senses at last. Any moment now she'd push the man away.

Any moment now.

But then the man gave a low chuckle and murmured something in the woman's ear. Delia watched, appalled, as the woman giggled again and snaked her arms around the man's lean hips to pull him tighter against her. Once he was there, the woman sighed. And oh, it was such a sigh! Delia had never heard one like it before, and it made her ears burn with embarrassment.

And he was . . .
O
h no!
One large hand slipped down to fumble at the fall of his breeches while the other caught a handful of the woman's skirts and began to raise them up, up, and higher still . . .

Delia clapped her hand over her mouth but some noise must have escaped, some cry of distress or outrage, because suddenly the man's back stiffened. The woman peered over his shoulder, saw Delia, and with a quick, practiced tug, she freed her skirts from the man's grip, batted them down,
jerked her neckline up, and disappeared around the side of the tree. Within seconds it was as if she'd never been there at all.

Delia blinked. Well, that was over quickly, wasn't it? Now that it was, she had two choices. She could ask the man for help, or she could flee back to Lily and the safety of the carriage and pretend she'd never been here, either.

Then again . . . she'd never seen a real debauchery before. Since there was no longer any danger of this one coming to its final embarrassing conclusion, Delia found she was curious.

What would he do
now
?

She watched, rapt, but for a long time he didn't do anything. He didn't turn around. He didn't speak. He just stood there, inhaling deeply, the muscles of his back rippling with each breath.
In. Out. In. Out
. He tipped his head back and for several minutes he concentrated on the tree branches swaying above him.

She was just about to conclude this was the dullest debauchery ever when he let out a frustrated groan, grabbed his coat from the branch, and turned to face her.

“Who the
devil
are you?”

Delia's mouth dropped open and she stumbled backward a few steps, her curiosity evaporating. His tone was inexcusably rude, and he was even bigger and more intimidating from the front, but the real trouble here was that . . .

He was naked.

Well, not naked
really
, but more naked than any man she'd ever seen in the flesh, and he had a great deal of flesh. His loose white shirt was open at the neck, revealing a generous expanse of his muscular chest. Delia stared, her face flaming even as her eyes moved helplessly over the bounty of bare male flesh.

He pinned her down with penetrating dark eyes that sported lashes long enough to satisfy even the vainest of women, and crossed his arms over his chest.

“Miss?” he barked. “I asked you a question.”

Yes—he had, hadn't he? Yes, of course—who the devil
was
she? “Delia Somerset?” She cringed when it emerged as a question.

A glint of lazy humor flashed in the black eyes. “Well, are you or aren't you? You don't seem to be sure.”

Delia didn't trust that glint. Her married friends sometimes whispered about men like him. Men who became crazed with lust and were swept away by their animal passions. All manner of wicked behavior followed.

This one looked more savage than most.

“Let's assume you are indeed Miss Somerset,” he drawled, when she still didn't speak. “Now that I know
who
the devil you are, may I suggest you tell me what the
devil
you're doing here?”

Why, of all the offensive, bullying . . . All at once Delia's embarrassment faded under a wave of indignation. Even an intriguingly bare chest didn't excuse profanity.

“And may
I
suggest, sir,” she snapped, “that you don your coat?”

One dark eyebrow shot up in acknowledgment of this show of temper. “Forgive me, Miss Somerset.” He put on his waistcoat and began buttoning it with an air of complete unconcern, as if he spent every day half-naked on a public road. He shrugged into his coat. “I didn't mean to offend your delicate sensibilities.”

Delia stared at him. “It's a bit late for that, isn't it? My sensibilities were offended, sir, when you unfastened your
breeches
.”

She'd meant to give him a firm set-down, but instead of looking ashamed or embarrassed as a proper gentleman would in such disgraceful circumstances, this awful man actually
laughed
.

“I fastened them again before I turned around,” he pointed out, as if this were a perfectly reasonable argument.

Delia pressed her lips together. “I see that. Are you expecting applause? A standing ovation, perhaps?”

“No, just pointing out you should be grateful for it, as it was damned difficult to do under the circumstances.”

Delia sniffed. “I'm sure I don't know what you mean.”

The man studied her face for a moment, noted her baffled expression, and all at once he seemed to grow bored with her. “Of course you don't. Now that we've discussed my clothing in more detail than I do with my valet, you will answer my question.”

Delia huffed out a breath. “My sister and I have come from Surrey to attend a house party at the home of the Earl of Carlisle. We're friends with the earl's sisters.”

No reaction. Delia stopped and waited, but not even a flicker of recognition crossed his face. For pity's sake. He must know who Lord Carlisle was?

“The coach we were traveling in broke an axle about a mile down the road.” She pointed in the direction from which she'd just come. “My sister and the coachman—”

“You should have stayed with the coach. What possessed you to go scampering around the countryside like a curious little rabbit?”

Annoyed by his condescending tone, Delia decided to overlook the fact she'd been thinking the same thing only minutes ago. “Believe me, sir, I've come to regret that decision most bitterly. But I thought it best in this case because—”

“Why didn't you just send the coachman to the inn for a carriage?” he interrupted again, looking at her as though she were simple.

“I couldn't, because when the axle broke—”

“The Prickly Thistle is in the opposite direction,” he said, as if she hadn't spoken. “Didn't you ask for directions?”

“Would you kindly stop interrupting me?” Delia nearly shouted the words.

There was a pause, then, “Why should I? You interrupted
me
.”

For a moment she wasn't sure what he meant, but then she felt her cheeks go hot and she knew they'd turned scarlet. “I'm sorry to have interrupted your”—she gestured with her hands—“your fornication, but that's no reason to—”

“Fornication?” He found this very funny indeed. “Did you just call it
fornication
?”

“Well, yes. What of it?”

“Oh, nothing. It's just very, ah, biblical of you.”

Delia crossed her arms stubbornly over her chest. There was
no way
she was going to ask. He was mad indeed if he believed she would. If she asked, he might just tell her, and she didn't want to know the answer.

“Well, what do you call it?”

Drat.

He smirked. “Something far more descriptive, but I'd rather not repeat it now. Tell me. Precisely how much of my fornication did you witness?”

“Far more than one generally expects to see on a public road,” Delia snapped. “In short, a shocking amount.”

“I see. That would explain why you stood there for so long, gaping. The shock.”

Delia glowered at him. “I didn't have much choice, did I? I heard a noise and so I followed it, and there you were, right in plain sight.”
Pressing against each other, sighing, kissing, caressing . . .

“You heard a noise. What kind of noise was it?” he asked, as if he were humoring her.

“At first I thought it was a wild animal,” she said, then added in an undertone, “and I wasn't entirely wrong.”

His eyes narrowed. “I beg your pardon, Miss Somerset?”

Delia bit her lip to keep from laughing. “I said, can't we move this along? My sister is waiting for me to return with
a conveyance. She's been ill, and I would rather not leave her in the cold any longer than necessary.”

He waved his hand imperiously, as if he were the lord of the manor and she a lowly servant. “Very well. Go on.”

She took a deep breath and recited the facts quickly, before he could interrupt again. “The axle broke, the coachman suffered an injury, they're stranded on the road, and night is coming on. I need to find the inn, procure a conveyance, and fetch them both at once.”

“The coachman is injured?” Now she had his full attention. “How badly injured?”

“Badly enough. He fell from the box when the axle broke and twisted his ankle. It's either sprained or broken. That's why he couldn't come for help. He did describe where I could find the Prickly Thistle Inn, but I must have missed a turn, for I didn't see it.”

“The turn is difficult to spot from the road.” He thought for a moment and came to some kind of decision. “Come.” He turned and started back down the road, splashing casually through the mud puddles, clearly expecting her to follow without question, as if she were a dog or a sheep or some other kind of dense livestock.

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