A Wicked Way to Win an Earl (4 page)

“That rather defeats the purpose of having spirit in the first place, doesn't it?” she asked, trying to stifle a laugh. “But truly, how unfortunate lively young ladies like Charlotte and Ellie should have such a disapproving brother.”

She was
laughing
at him? “They have only one disapproving brother, at least.” He'd started to lose patience. “My brother Robyn detests disapproval, especially when it's directed at him. No doubt you found
him
charming, Miss Somerset.”

Christ
. Now he sounded like a petulant child. Again, it was her fault. He felt like he was trying to charm a stick of furniture.

“Oh, I did,” she replied without hesitation. “He has such gentlemanly manners.”

Her implication was clear.
Not like his elder brother.

Robyn?
Gentlemanly?
Miss Somerset may be clever, but she was also hopelessly naïve if she hadn't recognized Robyn for the rogue he was. Alec doubted she'd spent much time out of Surrey. There was one way to find out. “Did you spend the entire winter with your family in Surrey?”

“Yes. We had a quiet winter. Some find the country a bit dull, I suppose. It's not exciting, but it's peaceful.”

If she'd come to Kent for excitement, she was off to a promising start. “Have you seen much of the English countryside?”

“No. I haven't had much opportunity, my lord. We did have a chance to see some of Kent while the light held today.”

“I see. Then you only go to London for the season?”

There was a short silence. He glanced over at her. A faint frown had appeared between her brows.

“I've never been to London, Lord Carlisle.”

“No London season?” He managed just a touch of aristocratic horror. “How extraordinary.”

“It's grievous indeed, Lord Carlisle,” she returned dryly.

Alec paused, as if still absorbing this shocking piece of information. “You have no relations in London?”

She shrugged. “We have no relations in London who wish to host us for a season, my lord.”

She'd phrased it so it wasn't quite a lie. Alec already knew, of course, she did have relations in London. Her maternal grandmother was even now terrifying the
ton
from her town house in St. James's Square.

Lady Chase didn't receive her granddaughters, then. If so, neither would anyone else. “So you and your sister don't spend time in society?”

“I have four sisters, my lord. We don't spend time in
society and not one of us has been to London. Nor are we likely ever to go.”

Despite himself, Alec was momentarily distracted. “
Four
sisters?” Millicent Chase had been busy after her exile from the
ton
. Five girls. No money to speak of. Plenty of scandal attached to the family name, though. He had to give his brother credit. Robyn couldn't have chosen a more spectacularly bad prospect than Delia Somerset.

“Why did your other three sisters not accompany you to Kent?” he asked.
Why not drag the whole penniless, scandalous lot along?

“My youngest sister is just fifteen years old, and the next one in age to Lily isn't yet eighteen. A house party isn't appropriate for them.” She made the words
house party
sound like
den of iniquity
.

“How kind of your parents to trust you and your sister Lily among us,” he bit out. At some point during this conversation, he'd started gritting his teeth.

As soon as the words left his mouth, he felt it—a surge of such sudden and intense emotion he nearly dropped the reins. She'd gone still, as though she could keep it all inside her if only she didn't move.

“My parents are dead, my lord.” Her voice was expressionless. “They were killed in a carriage accident last spring.”

Chapter Three

She couldn't get her breath. Grief closed over her head, a relentless, sucking tidal wave of it. She gasped a little, panicking. If she could just get her breath.
Breathe
. Breathing would stop the welling pressure behind her eyes and the torrent of painful words that rushed to her lips. Stop them before they spilled over and drowned Lord Carlisle.

She bit her lip. Hard.

Delia focused on the sky and concentrated on the fading light until the choked feeling began to ease. The afternoon dusk had long since faded into evening, but it was not entirely dark yet. Not dark enough for a sky full of stars. The faintest glimmers had begun to appear here and there in the deep blue above her, as though tiny pinpricks had been made in the dark canvas to let the starlight peek through.

She took another deep, cleansing breath and silently exhaled. Her parents' sudden death last spring wasn't a secret, but it was private
.
She didn't want to present it for Lord Carlisle's dispassionate inspection. Or anyone else's.
Certainly not anyone high enough in the instep to attend this house party. She'd imagined the death of a disgraced London belle and her provincial spouse would be beneath their notice. The
ton
hadn't bothered with Millicent Chase since she'd become Millicent Somerset. Why should Lord Carlisle ask about her family now?

She glanced at him out of the corner of her eye. He had high cheekbones and firm, sensuously sculpted lips. It was an arrogant face. An aristocrat's face. Now that she knew who he was, she could easily trace a likeness to his sisters in his features. Charlotte and Ellie were both beauties, with dark hair and merry black eyes.

Lord Carlisle didn't look merry at the moment. He looked grim. His large hands gripped the reins and he'd fallen silent after her last disclosure. She looked away. What did she care if he were grim? She cared only that he was silent.

And really, what was there to say?
I'm sorry you and your sisters are orphans? What an unspeakable tragedy?
She was oddly rather grateful he said nothing. It saved her the effort of having to manufacture the empty words required when someone expressed their condolences.
Thank you, my lord. Indeed it is a tragedy, my lord.
No one wanted to hear the truth.
My life as I've known it is over, my lord. My sisters are awash in grief, my lord. I'm not sure we'll survive, my lord.

Delia closed her eyes and listened to the soothing sounds of night. The deepening sky disguised her surroundings and for a little while she could imagine she was still in Surrey. The spring sunlight would have sunk below the roofline of the cottage by now, plunging the long narrow walkway and the modest front entry into darkness. Her sisters would be squabbling cheerfully as they prepared dinner—all except Hyacinth, who would muck about in the gardens for as long as possible, dirt caked under her fingernails, ignoring Hannah's orders to come indoors.

Delia had been gone for less than a day, and already she longed for home with an ache that left her breathless again. An entire fortnight in Kent seemed impossible, an eternity—

“The carriage is just ahead,” Lord Carlisle said. His voice was low but it startled her. She'd all but forgotten he was there. He pulled the cart up beside a bulky dark shape at the side of the road, barely discernible in the dusk.

Delia was out of the cart almost before it stopped. “Lily!” Her voice trembled. Her sister had been stranded on the road for hours, in the cold and the dark. Lily's health was precarious at the moment. What if she—

Before Delia could become truly alarmed, however, a slim figured appeared in the doorway of the carriage. “Here, Delia,” Lily replied in her soft voice. “We're all right.”

“Thank goodness for that.” Delia rushed toward her sister, removing Lord Carlisle's coat to drape it around Lily's shoulders. “I'm sorry it took such an age to return for you both. I was delayed by—”

She stopped. What could she say? That extra time was required for Lord Carlisle to fasten both his shirt
and
his breeches? “That is, Lord Carlisle was engaged with—”

Alec stepped forward and bowed smoothly to Lily. “I apologize for the delay. I was on the verge of satisfactorily concluding an urgent affair when Miss Somerset interrupted me with word of your distress. It took a few moments to disentangle myself.”

“Oh, dear,” Lily said with concern. “I'm sorry to interrupt such important business. I do hope the intrusion didn't cause irreparable damage.”

“You're very kind.” He gave Delia a diabolical smile. “No serious damage was done. I'm certain to achieve a gratifying conclusion at the next opportunity.”

Delia stared at him, her mouth open in astonishment. She remained silent until Lily delicately cleared her throat and raised her eyebrows meaningfully.

“Lord Carlisle, this is my sister, Miss Lily Somerset,” Delia said sullenly, squirming with the indignity of making a formal introduction under the circumstances.

Lily, as elegant and inexplicably as neatly attired as if she'd been out for a leisurely stroll, dipped into a curtsy that would have done justice to a London ballroom. If she thought it odd Lord Carlisle himself had come to fetch her in a hay cart, she gave no sign of it. She smiled graciously at him. “It's indeed a delight to meet you, my lord, though William's pleasure at your arrival must exceed even mine. He hasn't uttered a word of complaint, but I'm afraid his ankle pains him.”

A voice spoke up from inside the carriage. “Yer very kind, miss, but there's no need to take on so on account of me. I've 'ad worse.” There was a rustling inside the carriage and then William limped to the door. He bowed awkwardly to Lord Carlisle. “My lord, I beg yer pardon—”

“It's all right, William.” Lord Carlisle's voice was rough, but not unkind. He stepped forward to help William down from the carriage. “Lean on me.” He offered his arm. William hobbled over to the cart and heaved himself into the back with the earl's assistance.

Then Lord Carlisle turned to Lily and offered her a hand. “I apologize for the roughness of the accommodations. Miss Somerset chose expediency over luxury. The inn's hay cart was the quickest means of fetching you.”

Lily smiled. “That doesn't sound like Delia.” She placed her tidily gloved hand in Lord Carlisle's and joined William in the back of the cart. “She isn't usually that practical.”

“Is that so?” Lord Carlisle ran his eyes over Delia's mud-splattered gown. “I find that difficult to believe.”

Delia crossed her arms defensively over her chest. “I'm sure Lord Carlisle isn't the least bit interested in discussing this, Lily. Shall we go, my lord?” She nodded at the cart. “It grows late. Your sisters will have expected us hours ago.”

“A practical reminder,” he replied dryly, and turned back to the disabled carriage. He placed one booted foot on the intact rear wheel and swung easily up to reach the trunks strapped to the top of the coach. He unsnapped the straps, heaved the nearest trunk over his shoulder, and jumped nimbly down from the wheel. Delia stepped back as he lowered the trunk into the cart and returned for the second one.

Oh, my.

That trunk was heavy. She'd stood by yesterday and watched Lily attempt to squeeze yet another pair of slippers into its depths, to no avail.

So, the taut, muscular body she'd seen in such embarrassing detail was not simply decorative, then. No, it was
practical
. Instead of sending servants to fetch the trunks as a typical nobleman would do, this one tossed them over his shoulder as though they weighed no more than a corset, or a lace shift, or a pair of silk stockings.

Good heavens. Why was she thinking of women's undergarments at a time like this?
Stop it, Delia.

But it was too late. Every salacious image from earlier in the day rushed into her brain in tormenting detail. A fine white linen shirt opened to expose a smooth, hard chest. A low, laughing murmur and an answering sigh. Such a sigh! His teasing hand slipping into the woman's bodice, the other hand lifting her skirts . . .

Suddenly panicked, Delia rushed toward the front of the cart and scrambled clumsily into her seat before Lord Carlisle could return and offer to hand her up. She couldn't touch his hand. Not now. Not ever. Not his hand or any other part of him. He had entirely too much . . . too much . . .

He had too much
skin
.

The cart sagged as Lord Carlisle stepped up and took his seat next to her. Delia felt his quizzical gaze on her face, but she kept her eyes straight ahead. After a moment the cart
lurched forward. At last, they were on their way to Bellwood.

They had jostled along for a few miles in silence when a happy thought occurred to Delia. Why, once they arrived and the house party was under way, she'd see little of Lord Carlisle. She sighed with relief. Indeed, it would be the easiest thing in the world to avoid him entirely. She and Lily were far beneath his notice, after all. He wouldn't spare her another glance, and she could forget all about him and his unbuttoned breeches and his overabundance of flesh.

After another mile or so they crested a hill and all thought fled from Delia's mind as a burst of blazing light lit up the night sky. Bellwood had appeared through the bare branches of the trees that lined the long road leading up to the estate. The cart had come upon the house from the north side, which was unlit and not noticeable from the road. But the front of the house! Delia caught her breath in pleasure. She'd expected a grand house, but there were plenty of grand, ugly country estates in England.

Bellwood wasn't one of them. “Oh,” Delia exclaimed. “It's exquisite.”

She wasn't aware she'd spoken the words aloud until Lord Carlisle startled her with a reply. “Yes. It is. It's been in the Sutherland family for centuries.”

It was striking, not least because of the long row of stately ash trees that led to the entrance of the house. The branches of the trees seemed to reach for one another, entwining like slender silver arms to protect the road beneath. It was almost a tunnel of trees, even now, before they'd set all their leaves.

“It must be lovely to walk here in the summer,” Delia whispered. Somehow with the night and the light pouring from the windows and the skeleton of tree branches above, whispering seemed appropriate.

Lord Carlisle turned the cart onto the long gravel drive.
They were under the trees, and he and Delia both looked up at the latticework of branches above them. “It is. To ride, as well,” he agreed casually, not bothering to lower his own voice. “The trees have been that way for as long as I can remember.”

“They look like they've partnered for a dance,” she murmured.

He glanced at her, darkly amused. “What a whimsical notion, Miss Somerset.” His tone mocked her, but then he added, as if to himself, “They do, rather.”

Delia watched as the house drew closer. It was built of a cream-colored stone that had at one time likely been a pale shade, but it had mellowed over the years to a stately gold. There was a low gate at the end of the drive that separated the massive double front door of the house from the approach. The gate, which looked as though it had been added later, created an enclosed courtyard that ran the entire width of the center wing. It softened the front of the house a bit and lent a more welcome aspect to the entrance, yet the overall impression was of a grand and imposing estate.

They were close enough now Delia could see a white-capped head peeking out through a crack in the huge front doors. The head disappeared and a minute later a stiff-backed butler opened the door. Charlotte and Eleanor Sutherland shot past him like two overeager puppies and tumbled down the steps into the courtyard just as the cart pulled up.

“Delia! Lily! We've been waiting for you this age! Whatever happened?” They stopped short when they saw the cart.

“Alec!” Charlotte looked at her brother, aghast. “Where is the carriage? Tell me you didn't . . . Is that a
hay cart
? At night, in the cold . . .”

Charlotte was so flabbergasted she was unable to string together a coherent sentence.

Lord Carlisle lifted one bland eyebrow, unmoved by his sister's sputtering. “The carriage broke an axle about a mile from the Prickly Thistle. William twisted an ankle. I could have left your friends on the side of the road, Charlotte, but I thought they'd prefer a ride in a cart to a night outdoors.”

Charlotte and Eleanor both gasped, the cart forgotten. “Broke an axle? My goodness, are you both all right? You could have been . . .”

You could have been hurt. Or killed.

Delia felt the panic begin to close over her again, but then a warm, gloved hand squeezed her shoulder gently. Lily. Delia closed her eyes and reached up to squeeze Lily's fingers in return.
It's all right, Lily.
After a moment, it was.

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