A Wicked Way to Win an Earl (3 page)

Delia hesitated. She was in no more danger alone with him here than she'd be a mile down the road, and she didn't have much choice, but the idea of putting herself under this man's sole protection seemed, well, unwise.

When she didn't immediately follow, he jerked around. He must have read her thoughts on her face because his arrogant gaze moved deliberately from the top of her bedraggled bonnet down over her muddy traveling dress, and came to rest at last on her ruined boots. “Believe me, Miss Somerset,
you
are perfectly safe with me.”

Delia gasped in outrage. He was insulting her? She didn't need him to remind her she looked a perfect fright. “Such a gallant thing to say.” She had to struggle to keep her
temper. “But perhaps you're not accustomed to the company of ladies who are fully dressed.”

He shrugged, then turned again and started back down the road, leaving her no choice but to stagger behind him. “Let's just say I prefer the company of ladies who are fully
undressed
.”

Delia supposed he meant to shock her, but she was beyond shock at this point, and hardly turned a hair at this scandalous comment. She followed behind him, scrambling to keep pace with his long-legged stride. “I see. Well, that explains why you felt compelled to undress your friend on a public road. How terrible it must be, to be so at the mercy of your animal passions.”

She was glaring at the back of his head when she noticed he'd begun shoving a hand through his thick dark hair. The crisp waves curled and caught a bit against his long fingers. Did that mean he was nettled, then? Oh, she hoped so. She'd be immensely gratified to have annoyed him.

She had just begun to enjoy that idea when he whipped around to face her. She was so surprised she crashed right into him. Strong hands reached out to steady her, but when she was upright again, he didn't release her. Instead he pulled her just a bit closer—not so close his body touched hers, but more than close enough to completely unnerve her.

“I
was
carried away by my animal passions,” he murmured in a low, seductive voice. His velvety dark eyes caught and held hers. “I'm an impatient man, you see, Miss Somerset. Especially when it comes to”—he dropped his voice to a whisper—“
fornication.

For one moment Delia was mesmerized, staring at him as if he were a snake charmer and she were rising from her basket after languishing there for decades. But then she noticed a hint of a smirk on his lips and jerked free from his grasp.

Goodness gracious. Her face heated yet again. “Perhaps it would be better if we didn't speak.”

Another careless shrug. “If you choose.”

Awful, teasing man.

They walked along the road for a while, the only sound now the soft, wet thud of boots against mud. After a half mile or so he turned off the road and pulled back some overgrown bushes. “The inn is on the other side.” He gestured for her to walk in front of him.

As soon as Delia passed through the thick brush, she could see the path, and there at the end was the Prickly Thistle Inn. She'd walked right by it earlier without noticing, as it was impossible to see the squat stone building from the road. She glanced resentfully at her silent companion. She had cause to regret her inattention now, didn't she?

Delia breathed an immediate sigh of relief when they entered the inn. It was almost dark outside and growing colder, but there was a massive stone fireplace at one end of the main room that threw out considerable light and heat. A grizzled little man was running a damp cloth over the scarred wooden surface of the bar. “A pint fer ye, me lord?” he called, when he caught sight of Delia and her companion hovering in the doorway.

“Not this time, thank you, George,” Delia's companion replied, but he wasn't looking at the gray-haired man. He was looking at her, a smug grin lifting the corners of his wide mouth.

Delia stared back at him, aghast.
Oh, no, no, no!
But even as her brain worked frantically to deny it, she began to remember certain little details. His lack of reaction when she mentioned the earl's name. His concern over the injured coachman, a coachman who had been sent by the Earl of Carlisle to convey them to Kent. The fine quality and fit of his clothes—that was, when they were fastened.

And who else but an arrogant earl would
dare
 . . .

Delia wanted to stamp her foot with ire. It couldn't be!
Her mind struggled to think of anything that would prove her dreadful suspicion wrong.

Yes! The woman. The one he'd been groping. The giggler. She'd called this man
Alec
. That wasn't right, because Charlotte and Ellie's brother was named . . .

Delia closed her eyes in despair. Charlotte and Ellie's brother was named Alexander. Alexander Sutherland.

Alec
.

The fornicator. The debaucher. The lifter of women's skirts and the unbuttoner of breeches.

He
was Lord Carlisle.

Chapter Two

“Miss Somerset.” Alec swept her a low, mocking bow. “As you may have deduced, I am Carlisle. You'll be my guest at Bellwood for the next several weeks.”

He watched with detached interest as a series of expressions flickered across her mud-streaked face. Doubt. Denial. Fury. Finally, resignation. It had been a nasty trick to play on her. Childish, too. Alec almost felt guilty.
Almost.
But a man was not responsible for his actions when his bollocks were aching.

They weren't likely to stop aching anytime soon, either, thanks to Delia Somerset. He wasn't exactly proud to be caught with one hand in a village wench's bodice and the other raising her skirts, but things had become a bit more heated than he'd intended. That did tend to happen with Maggie. He was a man, after all, and Maggie had a spectacular bosom.

“My lord.” Alec jerked his attention back to Miss Somerset, who'd dipped into a very low, very deferential
curtsy. He was impressed, despite himself. He'd never seen a young lady curtsy
sarcastically
before.

He knew who she was, of course—had known before she said her name. Few things happened at Bellwood without Alec knowing about it. If his mother chose a new china pattern or one of his sisters broke a nail, he knew.

He'd expected Delia Somerset.

His sisters had revealed the information the previous evening. They'd been giggling over something for days, batting it between them like two kittens with a ball of yarn, repeating Robyn's name and the phrase “yellow gown” so often Alec had at last grown curious.

“Who is Robyn chasing now?” he'd asked idly.

“Delia Somerset,” Eleanor replied. “You remember we told you we became intimately acquainted with two young ladies during our stay in Surrey, Alec? Robyn was quite struck with Delia, the elder sister. I think yellow is his new favorite color.”

Somerset.
Of course Alec knew the name. Millicent Somerset, formerly Millicent Chase, had been a legend during her London season. Trust Robyn to find a Somerset in the wilds of Surrey and deem her worthy of chasing.

“He couldn't take his eyes off her,” Charlotte added, breathless with the romance of it. “He teased and teased until we invited her to the house party.”

Alec froze.
Invited her to the house party?

“Charlotte, Eleanor, I wish to speak with Robyn in my study. Please tell him.”

The girls turned and stared at him, surprised by his grim tone. “Um, I think Robyn has gone out for the evening already . . .” Eleanor began.

Alec raised one black eyebrow. “At once, Eleanor.”

His sisters weren't about to sacrifice themselves to the big bad wolf on Robyn's account. They must have decided Alec looked decidedly wolfish, because both girls turned
without another word and hurried out the door, before he could catch their little red hoods in his teeth.

Alec walked into the study, moved behind his desk, and unstopped the decanter of whiskey. He had a feeling he was going to need a drink.

“Alec.” A few minutes later Robyn breezed in and threw his long body into a full sprawl in front of the heavy mahogany desk. He nodded when Alec held up a second glass. Alec poured a measure and pushed it across to him.

Mincing words seemed pointless, so he didn't. “What will you do with the Somerset girl if you catch her, Robyn?”

There was a pause. “Delphinium,” Robyn said with a faint smile.

Alec gave his brother a blank look. “I beg your pardon?”

“Her name is Delphinium.”

Alec was speechless for a moment, then, “You're joking.”

“No. Charming, isn't it? Her friends call her Delia.”

“Is this really all about a damned yellow gown, Robyn?”

“The color of the gown isn't important, Alec. It had more to do with the cut. It fit her nicely. Very nicely indeed.”

Alec didn't leap across the polished surface of the desk and seize his brother by the throat, so he had cause to marvel at his own restraint. “Let me understand you, Robyn. You have invited Miss Somerset—
Delphinium
, if one can credit it—to Bellwood because she fills out her yellow gown?”

Robyn crossed his legs. “No, of course not. I didn't invite her here. That wouldn't be proper, would it, Alec? Charlotte and Ellie invited Delia and her sister Lily.”

“We wouldn't want you to overlook propriety,” Alec muttered.

He often played this game with Robyn these days. Alec pretended to be calm while his knuckles turned white from his grip on his whiskey glass. Robyn affected casual indifference, but he watched his brother with the wariness of a hare hiding in the shadows from a hound. If Alec lost his
temper before Robyn could escape the study, Alec lost the game.

“Tell me, Robyn—the Somerset girl. What level of scandal are you planning? Should I send word to London? Or will you confine yourself to the country this time?”

An angry flush rose above Robyn's collar and surged into his cheeks, but then he recalled his role in the game, and with a visible effort, he gave a careless shrug. “Who can tell?” There was a brief pause, then, “Perhaps I just enjoy her company, Alec. She's clever and amusing, and . . .
alive
.”

Alec stared at his brother. Something about Robyn's inflection on that last word stopped the retort on Alec's lips. Was that
longing
in Robyn's voice? Christ, he hoped not. Before he could decipher it, however, Robyn reverted to the lazy, bored tone that never failed to push Alec's temper to the boiling point. “As to warning London, I suppose you should do just what you please, Alec. You always do.”

Alec wrapped his fingers tightly around his glass.
Losing the game.
It was time for Robyn to leave. He gave a short nod. “Enjoy your evening, Robyn.”

It was a dismissal, and Robyn knew one when he heard it. He unfolded his long frame gracefully from the chair and bowed to his brother. “I always do. Good evening, Alec.”

*   *   *

Alec hadn't seen or spoken to Robyn since then. Not surprisingly, there had been no sign of him when Alec left Bellwood at midday. Robyn was likely even now still snoring off the remainder of last night's debauchery. Or maybe Robyn was just avoiding him. Robyn generally did avoid him these days.

Nonetheless, Alec made it his business to know if his scapegrace brother was contemplating a new liaison. He didn't object to Robyn
having
liaisons—he wasn't quite such a hypocrite as that. His brother could tup whomever he
wished, with Alec's blessing. The trouble was, Robyn wasn't discreet. Far from it, and he'd spent the past year honing his gift for causing scandal.

Well, not this time. Alec wouldn't tolerate another scandal. Not with Lady Lisette and her mother attending the house party.

Hard to believe it to look at the girl, but Delia Somerset was another explosive scandal waiting to happen, for all she looked like a London street urchin. Alec couldn't tell whether she was pretty or not, and it made him uneasy. Robyn appreciated tangible qualities in a female, starting with a lush, obvious kind of beauty and concluding with a devastating bosom.

Delia Somerset didn't make sense, and Alec didn't like it when things didn't make sense. How had this plain chit captured Robyn's fickle, roving eye? Was it possible Alec had overlooked a devastating bosom? He lowered his eyes to her chest for a quick inspection. Her dark traveling cloak was so practical and modestly cut, her figure in general remained a mystery. Perhaps another sneaky glance would reveal—

“Lord
Carlisle
!” she snapped, crossing her arms firmly over her bosom.

Damn it. Not sneaky enough. Alec raised his eyes from her breasts to find her glaring at him.

“Before you start unbuttoning your breeches,” she said acidly, “perhaps you'd care to speak to the innkeeper about a carriage?”

Alec grimaced. Sharp-tongued chit. “Have you a carriage about, George?”

Mr. George shook his head. “'Fraid I don't, me lord. Not today. Mrs. George took the inn carriage off to her sister's house. I lets her take it, ye see, me lord, on account o' otherwise her sister comes to visit us here, and I'd just as soon
she didn't.” Mr. George grinned. “Not much in life worse than an irascible female, if ye take my meaning, me lord.”

Alec glanced at his silently fuming companion. “I do, George.”

“We has the hay cart.” There was a brief pause; then George added doubtfully, “Yer welcome to it, me lord.”

Damnation
. It would be pitch-dark by the time they returned to Bellwood and fetched another carriage. Alec hated to leave William on the side of the road with an injury, not to mention a potentially hysterical female, but he'd pushed Miss Somerset about as far as she'd—

“We'll take the cart,” she said. Then she smiled. “Thank you, Mr. George, for your kindness in offering it to us.”

“Of course, miss.” George, obviously charmed, beamed at her. “I'll have the lad bring it 'round fer ye.”

Alec stared at her. Just when he'd made up his mind she couldn't possibly pose any real threat, she'd smiled, and there went George, scurrying off to the back room, almost tripping over his short legs in his haste to accommodate Miss Somerset. If she smiled at Robyn that way, spoke to him in that soft, husky voice . . . Well, even Alec had forgotten for a moment she was covered in mud and her bosom remained a mystery.

The mystery wouldn't be solved tonight, however. She wasn't about to agree to remove her cloak so he could inspect her bosom. She wasn't Maggie, after all. Still, if he exerted himself to be charming, who knew what he could wheedle out of Miss Somerset on the drive to Bellwood?

“The cart is ready for ye, me lord.” George bustled back into the main room and took up his place behind the bar. “I wish you a good evening, miss,” he added, with a nod and shy smile for Miss Somerset.

Alec rolled his eyes. It was time to get her out the door before George tried to kiss her hand.

“It won't be a comfortable ride,” Alec said, once they were outside. He eyed the cart. “Or a clean one.”

Miss Somerset shrugged and made a move as if to spring into the cart.

“Allow me, Miss Somerset.” Alec offered his hand. She looked at it as if it were a snake about to strike, but he seized hers anyway, determined to be charming, whether she liked it or not.

Her hand was fine-boned, her fingers long and slim. He could feel her chill even through her glove. Surprisingly, Alec felt a stab of conscience when that cold, delicate hand slipped into his. He swung up next to her on the seat, and after a silent apology to Weston, he shrugged out of his coat and placed it around her shoulders. The mud would ruin it, but if she caught pneumonia, she could be at Bellwood for months, languishing. Even a plain country mouse could snare Robyn if she languished seductively enough.

“No! I mean, no thank you, my lord. I mean, it's not necessary to . . .” she stammered.

Damn it.
What was wrong with the girl this time? She looked aghast, as if she thought she could catch the pox from his coat. He was about to reassure her that he was as spotless as a newborn babe when it occurred to him it was
not
charming to discuss the pox with gently bred young ladies. “Your hands are cold,” he said gruffly instead. “It will be a chilly ride to Bellwood.”

He took up the reins. “My sisters were grateful for your company during their stay in Surrey,” he began politely after a moment.

There was a brief silence, then, “They were relieved,” she allowed. “They seemed to be under the impression the neighborhood was restricted to maiden aunts and elderly widowers.”

“That's the company their aunt usually keeps. They were
fortunate to find such delightful young ladies in you and your sister.”

There. That should do. It couldn't be that difficult to charm a rustic like Miss Somerset.

But if he'd been expecting simpering and cooing, he was disappointed. She gave a short, disbelieving laugh. “Are we to have compliments now, my lord? Ah yes, I remember.
The Mirror of the Graces
does say after a gentleman exposes his unmentionables to a lady, he should flatter her and pretend to admire her.”

Alec chuckled. Did she really think she'd seen his
unmentionables
? “I only meant any company would be more engaging than their aunt Matilda's. She's not exactly vivacious, though Charlotte and Eleanor don't need more of that.”

She pounced at once. “Why is that? Do you disapprove of your sisters showing spirit, my lord?”

“Not in the proper time and place,” Alec said, then cringed. He sounded like a prig. Prigs weren't charming. This conversation wasn't going at all the way he'd planned, and it was her fault. Talking to her was like having a thorn stuck in his boot. Every time he took a step forward, she pricked at him.

Other books

The Night Book by Richard Madeley
Wicked Obsessions by Marilyn Campbell
The Moche Warrior by Lyn Hamilton
Dark Rides by Rachel Caine
Abattoir by Leppek, Christopher, Isler, Emanuel
Lockout by Maya Cross
Moonbog by Hautala, Rick