A Wicked Way to Win an Earl (20 page)

He'd removed his coat, waistcoat, and cravat, and the neck of his fine white cambric shirt gaped open. He'd shoved his sleeves up past his elbows, exposing an endless length of muscular forearm. He must have been running his hands through his thick dark hair, too—he had a habit of doing that. Too-long locks fell across his forehead and the start of a dark beard shadowed his face.

He looks like a pirate
. Delia's eyes drifted to the tanned skin of his chest left exposed by the open shirt, and an unwelcome shiver of awareness tickled down her spine. A pirate who was a bit worse off from drink, that was.

What a perfect end to a perfect day—alone in a dark
hallway with a drunken pirate who was about to fall out of his shirt.

“You're drunk.” She hoped her abruptness would disguise her sudden breathlessness. She turned to start up the stairs, but before she could take a step, he wrapped a hand around her arm and turned her back around to face him.

She looked down at the long fingers grasping her arm, then pointedly back into his face, but he ignored the hint and drew her closer. “Just drunk enough,” he said, in a low, amused voice.

Don't ask. Don't ask. Don't ask.

“Just drunk enough for what?”
Blast
.

But he was the only one permitted to ask questions, it seemed. “Did you enjoy your evening, Delia? You appeared to be pleased with your dinner companion.”

Well, that settled it. If she'd appeared to enjoy herself tonight, then it was time for her to tread the boards at Drury Lane. “Oh, yes.” She made a futile attempt to tug her arm free from his grasp. “I do prefer to
participate
in a conversation rather than overhear it.”

She raised her chin with a defiant jerk.
There
. That should serve to remind him of what an awful, terrible man he was. Hopefully it would remind her, as well.

But if she was expecting him to look ashamed, she was disappointed. He took in her raised chin and a slow, wicked smile drifted across his lips. “You mean you prefer to participate rather than eavesdrop?”

“Eavesdrop! How
dare
—”

“But then, eavesdropping has advantages, too,” he went on, as if she hadn't spoken. “For example, I'd have been very interested to overhear any part of your conversation with Robyn tonight.”

Delia bristled. “My conversations with Robyn or anyone else are none of your business, Lord Carlisle.”

His face darkened and his fingers tightened on her arm. “Ah, but I think it is my business, given the circumstances.”

Delia felt an angry flush rise in her cheeks. “Oh, yes. How could I forget the circumstances? You must be referring to my devious plot to trap your brother into marrying me.” She cocked her head to one side, as if considering this. “Well, you will be glad to know I'm off to a promising start. Robyn and I”—she paused dramatically—“
walked in the garden together this evening
.”

Alec stiffened and his mocking smile vanished. Suddenly there was tension in every line of his hard body.

Perhaps she shouldn't have goaded him—

But it was too late. He was already reaching for her. Delia backed away from him, but he pursued her until the stair banister pressed into her spine. He slipped one long finger under her chin and raised her face to his. His other hand was still wrapped around her arm.

“Indeed? How romantic.” That lazy smile started at the corner of his mouth again, but his dark eyes were hot with fury. He gazed at her for a moment, then slowly teased that long finger across her cheek. “What other intimacies did you permit?”

She couldn't look away from him. Delia tried to gather her wits, but all of her attention was focused on that warm, seeking finger. “What do you mean?”

Her heart hammered as he moved his hand so his palm cupped her face. He brushed his fingertips lightly across the shell of her ear and the sensitive skin behind it, and leaned forward so his breath stirred the tendrils of hair at her temple. He pressed his lips softly against her ear. “I think you know. Did he touch you?”

Delia closed her eyes at the sensation of his hot breath teasing her skin. He smelled faintly of woodsmoke and fine whiskey. “Yes.” She tried for a firm tone, but her voice
emerged faint and breathless. “Of—of course he did. He took my arm.”

Some strong emotion surged through his body. He was so close to her now Delia felt an echo of it low in her own belly. The tip of his tongue grazed her earlobe. Delia jumped in shock and then shuddered with pleasure. “Oh, don't,” she pleaded in a sudden panic.

He let out a ragged breath. “Don't what?” His voice had gone husky, but it still vibrated with anger. “Don't touch you?” His hand drifted down until it reached the small of her back. He held her body tightly against his own as one hard thigh moved between her legs to press against her through her skirts. “Don't put my mouth on you?” His lips roamed deliberately from her ear across her cheek and then down to her throat. “Or don't ask any more questions?” His mouth stopped at the soft skin between her neck and her shoulder and nipped lightly. “Did you let my brother kiss you?”

Delia couldn't speak. She was drowning. She cursed both him and herself even as she wrapped her arms around his neck, desperate to stay afloat. He groaned low in his chest. “Answer me, Delia.” He nipped gently at her neck with his teeth, then licked at the bite with his darting tongue.

“N-no.” Delia bit back a moan, not sure if she was answering his question or begging him to stop. Or was she begging him not to stop? “No.”

Some of the tightly leashed anger drained from his body then. Her frantic grip on his shoulders eased as she felt him draw a deep breath. “Damned good thing,” he whispered, right before his mouth came down on hers, not gently but voraciously, crushing her lips. He tasted her, then pulled her plump bottom lip into his mouth and sucked.

Delia moaned, and he took ruthless advantage of her desire. He plunged his tongue roughly into her open mouth,
invading her. She hesitated, shocked but also unbearably excited. Her tongue crept forward and hesitantly touched his. He groaned and his hands moved from the small of her back to her hips, drawing her tight against his hardening cock.

With every delicate stroke of her tongue, his control seemed to slip another notch. His powerful body shook with pleasure. Emboldened by his reaction, Delia sank her fingers into the deep waves of his crisp black hair and tugged, pulling his head down to hers. He growled against her mouth, then captured her tugging fingers in his and pressed her hands inside the open neck of his shirt, against the bare skin of his chest.

His skin was hot, so hot. She moved her hands to the opening at his neck so she could feel more of it.

He lifted his mouth from hers. “You will
never
let him kiss you,” he commanded fiercely in a low, savage voice, his mouth still hovering over hers.

His words penetrated the dense fog of her desire. She'd been lost in his kiss, one breath away from tearing his shirt off, and he'd been thinking—what? That she'd allow Robyn to kiss her this way, too? That she was some grand seductress who practiced on one brother so she could seduce the other?

Alec's hateful words from this afternoon flooded over her, each syllable like a hard slap across her face. Yes. He did think that of her, and worse, too. She'd sworn to herself she'd remember his vile words and never be such a fool again, but here she was with her arms around his neck, kissing him as if nectar flowed from his mouth and she was starved for nourishment.

Her cheeks burned with shame.

She placed her hands flat against his chest and pushed—hard. She caught him off guard and he released her at once,
his arms falling away. He stared at her, his expression stunned, his hands clenched at his sides.

“Why shouldn't I let Robyn kiss me?” Her voice was strong and clear in spite of her breathlessness. “Isn't that what mistresses do?”

Alec's face went so pale his dark eyes seemed to burn. “Delia, I didn't—” He broke off, and when he spoke again, he seemed to be pleading with her. “I know you would never . . .”

He stopped and ran an unsteady hand down his face. He seemed to be struggling to find the right words.

Delia stared at him, shocked at his anguished expression. She gasped as her heart clenched painfully in her chest. When had it happened? When had his pain become hers?

“Don't say that,” he whispered fiercely. “You will
never
be his mistress.”

Delia shook her head as a wave of unbearable sadness swept through her. “But I didn't say it, Alec.
You
did. Now it can never be unsaid.”

He stared at her for a moment longer, his face ashen. “So I did,” he murmured at last. “And so it can't.”

He turned, walked back into his study, and closed the door quietly behind him.

Chapter Nineteen

“No, no, Lily! You cannot wear a fichu with that ball gown! It isn't at all the thing, you know.” Charlotte sounded as if she were about to collapse with laughter.

The door connecting the two rooms stood open, and another shriek of glee made Delia clutch her head in pain. Charlotte and Lily had been closeted in Lily's room all morning, deep in consultations over their gowns for the ball the following evening.

Delia had retreated to her own room after breakfast and spent the rest of the morning hiding there under the pretense of writing a letter home. She picked up her latest attempt and slowly crumpled it in her hands. The sheet was so crossed and blotted it was unreadable.

Her eyes felt swollen and dry, and her head ached terribly.

There was another screech of laughter from Lily's room. “Hide it? Nonsense, my dear. We'll do all we can to call attention to it!”

“But, Charlotte.” Poor Lily sounded a little desperate. “It's
cut
so
low. I'm not accustomed to . . . That is, it exposes so much of my . . .” Her voice trailed off into a forlorn squeak.

“Exactly. That's the very point. You may count yourself fortunate you have a bosom worth displaying. I know at least one gentleman who will be exceedingly grateful indeed.”

“Lord Archibald?” Lily sounded resigned. “But he's such an awful rogue, Charlotte.”

“Oh my, yes,” Charlotte replied blithely. “But a rich, handsome, and titled one!”

Delia rose from the desk, crossed the room, and closed the door that connected her room to Lily's. The last thing she wished to hear about this morning was rich, handsome, and titled rogues. She lay down on the bed, pulled a fluffy pillow over her face, and immediately commenced thinking about rich, handsome, and titled rogues.

Well, one specific one anyway. She didn't
want
to think about him or the scene in the stables, but the effort to keep from doing so was exhausting her. She was sure it was the reason she had such a dreadful headache. She pulled the pillow off her face and shoved it under her head. So she was going to lie here and think about it, and when she'd done so, she was never, ever going to think about it again.

Alec wished she'd never come here. Well, that made two of them, so that wasn't what was making her feel as though her heart had been cut to ribbons.

So her father had been “a nobody” and her mother a scandal, so much so even their own grandmother pretended she and her sisters didn't exist. Very well. Delia could bear that. The part about her father hurt a bit, but the truth was Henry Somerset had been
somebody
, somebody very special indeed, and nothing anyone said about him could change that.

What else? Oh, yes. A marriage to Delia would disgrace the entire Sutherland family, so Alec had only been pretending he desired her, in order to keep her out of Robyn's way.
She was fit to be Robyn's mistress, but men like the Sutherlands only married wealthy aristocrats like Lady Lisette. As far as Alec was concerned, Delia was no more significant than the young woman he'd been debauching on the day she arrived in Kent.

Oh, God
. That did hurt. It hurt terribly. She rolled onto her back, threw an arm over her eyes, and let the misery wash over her.

But even this wasn't the worst of it. She'd tried to deny it, and she'd tried to pretend it wasn't true, but there was no help for it. The truth, the very worst part of the whole awful affair, was she knew how much it must have hurt Alec when Robyn said he was just like their father, the late earl. Every time she closed her eyes, she saw Alec's face when she'd walked into the stables after Robyn stormed out. He'd looked so pale, so lost. Of all the ugly, hurtful words said that day, it was these words that left Delia gasping with the pain that flooded her heart.

The more fool she, but there it was.

It was time for her to go back to Surrey. Back home. She'd thought she could come here and prove something to these people. To Alec. To herself, really. But she wasn't as strong as her mother, after all. Millicent hadn't been exiled by society. She'd chosen not to be a part of this world, and she'd orchestrated her own exit on her own terms, and never looked back.

Running away back to Surrey with a broken heart wasn't the same thing at all, was it?

Delia rolled over onto her side, drew her knees up against her chest, and closed her eyes. A few tears leaked out to dampen her pillow, but she tamped them down before they could become a deluge. What good would it do to lie there and snivel and whimper about it? It was over and done with, and she wasn't going to waste any more time thinking about it. Crying about it. Wishing things were different . . .

“Delia? Delia!”

Delia woke a little while later to find Lily standing over her bed, shaking her shoulder gently. “You missed luncheon.” Lily sat down at the foot of the bed and looked at Delia with concern. “I almost woke you, but you looked so tired.”

“It's all right.” Delia sat up. “I wasn't hungry anyway.” She felt a little better now. Her heart was still bleeding, but at least her headache had eased somewhat. “Where's Charlotte?”

“She went for a walk with Lord Archibald.”

“You didn't want to walk with them?”

“No.” Lily avoided her sister's eyes. “I want to talk to you about something, actually.”

Delia groaned to herself. Oh, for pity's sake! What now? She wasn't sure she could handle any more surprises.

“Charlotte has invited us to accompany the family to London for the season,” Lily began carefully. “Lady Carlisle extended a formal invitation yesterday afternoon. You are invited, as well, of course.”

Delia felt her heart plummet into her stomach. It was lovely of Lady Carlisle to invite them, but there was no way she could go, given the circumstances. The only place she was going was back to Surrey. Soon. And now it looked like she was going alone.

She bit her lip to keep from loudly enumerating all the reasons why Lily shouldn't go, either. London was wicked. The
ton
was wicked, especially the gentlemen. It wasn't proper for Lily to go without Delia. Lily didn't have the right clothes. The right slippers. The right jewelry. Or, indeed, any jewelry at all. And finally, grasping at straws: the journey was too long and wet. Lily could catch cold.

It was all nonsense, of course. London might be wicked, but one could get up to wickedness anywhere, like a house party in Kent, for example. Delia couldn't argue that
she
was a more appropriate chaperone than Lady Carlisle, either, who had not, as far as Delia knew, been locked in a passionate embrace with an almost-engaged rake of an earl at the bottom of the staircase last night. As to clothes, well—Charlotte had mountains of them. Enough for a dozen young ladies to attend every party of the season without ever appearing twice in the same gown.

“That is so kind of Lady Carlisle,” Delia said, “but I can't go, dear.”

“No, I didn't suppose you would. I don't think this visit has agreed with you, Delia. You've been rather out of sorts since we arrived.” There was a pause, then, “Do you suppose I may go, just the same?”

Lily looked at her with pleading eyes.

Delia sighed. Oh, how she'd miss her pristine, fastidious little sister! But she couldn't think of a single person who deserved a chance to see some of the world beyond Surrey more than Lily did, and this was likely Lily's best chance to do so. They had one other connection in London—Lady Anne Chase, their maternal grandmother. But Alec was right about her. There was only resounding silence from that quarter. She would never acknowledge them.

“Of course you must go.” Delia was thankful her voice wasn't shaking. “I would like to have a word with Lady Carlisle first to settle the details, but that's simple enough.”

Lily clapped her hands with delight. “Oh, thank you, Delia! Oh, how wonderful.” Lily's face glowed with excitement. “I'll miss you terribly, though.” She looked at Delia, her bright expression fading a little. “I wish we could both—”

“You won't even notice I'm not there after a week, because you'll be so engaged with parties and balls.” Delia tried to ignore the sharp pang in her chest. “Besides, one of us must go back to Surrey and make sure our sisters haven't locked Hannah in a cupboard.”

Lily laughed. “I hadn't thought of that. Poor Hannah. When will you go?”

“Soon, I think,” Delia replied vaguely.
Very soon.

“I must go tell Charlotte.” Lily jumped up from the bed and rushed to the door. “Oh, Delia, before I forget. Eleanor is looking for you. She'd like you to come to her bedchamber when you wake. She said she wants to show you something.”

Delia threw her legs over the side of the bed. She enjoyed Eleanor's company very much, and a visit with her friend sounded like just the thing. “Have you seen Lady Carlisle this afternoon?”

“Charlotte said she's in her private sitting room, finalizing details for the ball tomorrow night. Will you go and see her now?”

Delia nodded. “Yes, I think so. I'll go to Eleanor afterwards.”

“I'll go find Charlotte. Lord Archibald awaits, after all.” She gave Delia an impish smile. “Delia?”

Delia stood at the looking glass, repinning her hair. “Yes?”

“I know you've been unhappy since we arrived here. No,” she continued quickly, when Delia started to speak. “I'm not going to ask why, because you'll tell me yourself if you want to. I know you didn't want to come to Kent, and that you came for my sake. Thank you. You're a wonderful sister. I just wanted to say that.”

“Oh, Lily.” Delia's throat went tight.

“Now fix your hair,” Lily said with a grin before Delia could say another word. “It's a disaster.”

“One of many, I'm afraid,” Delia murmured to herself after the door had closed behind Lily.

Within the quarter hour she'd tidied her appearance and was standing in the hallway outside Lady Carlisle's private sitting room, her hand poised in front of the handsomely carved door like a pale bird arrested in mid-flight. It was
silly to be nervous. Lady Carlisle had been nothing but kind since they'd arrived at Bellwood, but Delia wasn't looking forward to discussing the one little nasty of piece of business that brought her here.

She sighed and willed her knuckles to make contact with the polished wood.

“Yes?” Lady Carlisle's voice carried clearly into the hallway.

Delia opened the door and peeked around it. “Good afternoon, my lady.”

“Oh, Miss Somerset. Please come in. Won't you sit down?” Lady Carlisle gestured to the tea service on a small table next to a sumptuous blue velvet chair. “Will you take tea?”

“No, thank you, my lady.” Delia took a seat on a tufted yellow satin settee.

Lady Carlisle settled herself on the chair across from Delia and folded her hands serenely in her lap. “What a surprise to see you here.” She regarded Delia with her kind dark eyes.

But Lady Carlisle didn't look surprised. Delia had the oddest sense the older woman knew precisely why she was there.
Oh, good God
. Surely Alec hadn't confided the details of their sordid little game to his mother? Just the thought made Delia squirm nervously in her seat.

She twisted her hands in her lap. “I'm sorry to disturb you. Lily tells me she's been invited to accompany your family to London for the season.”

Lady Carlisle nodded. “Yes. I do know you have responsibilities at home, however. Three younger sisters, I believe? I hope we don't presume too much in extending the invitation.”

“Presume? Oh, no, my lady. Not at all. It's just . . .” She stopped, not sure how to get the next words out gracefully. “That is, our grandmother . . . I did want to make it clear our maternal grandmother does not . . .” Delia trailed off
hopelessly, realizing too late there was no graceful way to explain their wretched grandmother would likely cut Lily directly if she were to see her at a party or ball in London.

“Ah, yes. Lady Chase.” Lady Carlisle set her porcelain teacup carefully in the saucer. “I'm acquainted with her. She's very grand, is she not? I believe you wish to tell me she doesn't receive you?”

“Yes.” Delia released the breath she was holding. She was grateful to Lady Carlisle for so generously excusing her from having to say it. “Doubtless you will encounter her at various social functions, and I'm afraid there may be some awkwardness. Lily and I have no wish to embarrass the Sutherlands—”

“My dear Miss Somerset,” Lady Carlisle interrupted gently. “Please don't concern yourself with this. I don't think any of us need concern ourselves with Lady Chase at all.”

Delia gazed at her companion with admiration. Lady Carlisle was saying, in her refined way, that the Sutherlands had more than enough social clout to withstand being cut by Lady Chase. Delia's own mother had had the same gift of saying a great deal with a few well-placed words.

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