A Wicked Way to Win an Earl (5 page)

But when she opened her eyes again, she found Lord Carlisle's dark, penetrating gaze on her. “Your friends are no worse off from a ride in a hay cart, Charlotte,” was all he said, however. He jumped down and offered Lily his hand. “I may take you and Ellie for a ride in it, as well. It would do you both good to travel in a cart.”

Charlotte snorted.

“How can you say they're no worse off, Alec?” Eleanor asked. “Why, the mud alone is . . . Delia! Is that a piece of hay stuck to the front of your dress?”

“No doubt it is,” Delia replied, a little unsteadily.

She looked down at her dress, but she didn't bother to brush off the hay. It was far, far too late for that. “But we can't hold the cart responsible for the mud or the hay, I'm afraid,” she continued, thankful her voice sounded normal. “Look at Lily. She looks as fresh as a spring flower still.”

Eleanor and Charlotte rushed forward to embrace Lily as soon as she descended from the cart. “Lily! I'm afraid you're frozen nearly to death,” Charlotte said, with another reproachful glance in her brother's direction.

But Lord Carlisle only shrugged and handed Delia down
from the cart. Charlotte and Ellie rushed forward and embraced her warmly, as well, though Delia noted with amusement they were careful not to get any mud on their spotless gowns.

“Rylands?” Eleanor said to the butler. “You will see Miss Somerset and Miss Lily's things are sent to the blue bedrooms, please?”

The butler bowed. “Of course, miss.” His expression was respectfully stoic, despite the mud and the deplorable hay cart.

“My dears, we had thought to have a light supper together this evening,” Charlotte began as she led Lily and Delia into the entrance hall. “But given the late hour and Alec's disgraceful hay cart—”

Eleanor interrupted her sister. “It's best if you go straight to your rooms so you can recover from the shock and cold. It would be too bad if one of you took a chill and became ill. It would spoil all our fun.” Eleanor turned back to the butler. “Rylands, our guests will need baths and trays with a light supper.”

Rylands bowed again. “Yes, miss.”

Alec followed the ladies into the entrance hall. “Where's Robyn? I would think he'd make an effort to greet his guests.”

Delia turned to him in surprise. Eleanor was surprised by this comment, as well. “Don't be absurd, Alec. They're
our
guests. Robyn is off somewhere.” She waved her hand vaguely.

Lord Carlisle bowed. “Miss Somerset, Miss Lily. I hope you both recover enough from your alarming journey that you are able to enjoy your stay. If you'll excuse me, I need to send a servant back to the inn with the hay cart, and find someone to tend to William.”

When he straightened from his formal bow, his eyes found Delia's face and lingered there, as if he were trying
to solve a puzzle. She couldn't quite read his expression, but there was something in it that sent a surge of warm color into her cheeks.

He narrowed his eyes on her in surprise, blinked, but said nothing. Then he bowed again and disappeared.

Chapter Four

“It's just like a cloud.” Lily peeked around the door that connected her room to Delia's, a dazed expression on her face.

Delia stood motionless by the door that led from her room into the hallway. She hadn't moved since the maid had shown them up to their rooms. “What is?”

“My room. It's . . .” Lily paused, gesturing with her hands, as if words failed her. “It's fluffy. It's creamy white with the softest blue accents. It's . . . it's frothy, Delia. It looks like a cloud. It
feels
like a cloud. You can't imagine . . .” Her voice trailed off as she took in Delia's room. She stepped toward the bed and ran a hesitant finger across the pale blue damask coverlet, closing her eyes in bliss at the feel of the rich fabric.

“I don't need to imagine it,” Delia said shortly. She still stood stiffly by the door.

Maybe it was the cold, or the ordeal with Lord Carlisle, or the broken axle and the hay cart, but all of a sudden she felt like crying.

Lily opened her eyes. “Delia!” she exclaimed, noting her sister's stricken expression. “What's the matter?”

Delia gathered the folds of her ruined cloak in her fists. “I can't touch anything! I'm afraid to move. I'll get mud and hay all over this beautiful room!”

“Oh, my dear.” Lily hurried to Delia's side and began to work on the tangled strings of her sister's bonnet. She made sympathetic noises in her throat, but Delia was sure she was stifling a smile.

“There. That's better.” Lily held the ruined bonnet pinched between the tips of her fingers and hesitated, looking for a safe place to set it down. Finally she balanced it on the edge of the washbasin. “The bath will be here soon, and you can . . .” She stopped in the middle of unbuttoning Delia's cloak. “My goodness, Delia! Is there any mud left in Kent, or is it all on your cloak?”

Delia scowled. “There seems to be plenty for everyone, but Kent could be awash in mud, Lily, and
you
would still manage to remain spotless.”

Lily rolled her eyes. “Let's not start with that again. What was your first impression of the estate?” she asked instead, changing to a subject she knew her sister would be unable to resist.

“Exquisite. Most of the
ton
's country estates are grand and impressive, of course, but few are as truly lovely as this one is. At least it seemed so from the brief look we had. If the weather holds, perhaps we can walk in the garden tomorrow, or ride around the park.”

“If you wish to see the gardens and park, Delia, I'm certain Mr. Robert Sutherland would be very pleased to escort you.” A provoking little smile lifted the corners of Lily's mouth.

Lily's expression was so comical Delia couldn't prevent a laugh. “Oh, what nonsense, Lily.”

“He did pay you rather marked attention at the
Mainwarings' party the night before he escorted Charlotte and Ellie home.”

“I believe you mean he paid rather marked attention to my cleavage. Had I not been forced to borrow Iris's yellow gown, I daresay Mr. Sutherland would have completely overlooked me. Perhaps if you had worn a gown a half size too small, Lily?”

The cleavage-baring yellow gown had become a bit of a legend in the Somerset household after the Mainwarings' party. Delia and Lily had regaled their wide-eyed younger sisters at length with exaggerated stories of the effect the tight yellow gown had had on Robyn Sutherland.

“Your underestimate your own charms, Delia,” Lily said, still giggling.

“Not at all.” Delia forgot all about the mud as she began to warm to her subject. “You overestimate Mr. Sutherland's attention span. He's a member of the
beau-monde
and has doubtless been distracted by another plunging neckline by now. The Mainwarings' party was nearly two weeks ago! If you didn't bring Iris's gown with you, Lily, then perhaps you have a shiny object? For I imagine that will do almost as well.”

“Oh, you are too cruel,” Lily said, wiping her eyes.

“Perhaps I am. Besides, I found Mr. Sutherland quite charming. He's easy and friendly—not at all what one would expect from a fashionable young man of the
ton
.”

His brother, on the other hand
 . . .

But Delia kept that thought private. Lily didn't need to know about Lord Carlisle's bare chest and unbuttoned breeches. It would worry her, and Delia was determined to let nothing worry or vex Lily in her current precarious state of health.

After their parents' deaths, Delia had emerged from her own dark abyss of grief to find her sister hollow-cheeked, with black-shadowed, dull eyes. Nothing seemed to rouse
Lily from her lethargy. She grew paler and thinner with each passing day until Delia became frantic with worry.

Then Charlotte and Ellie Sutherland had arrived in Surrey and they'd chased away the worst of the demons with their high spirits and contagious laughter, and Lily had begun to show signs of life again. Nothing less than a hope for her sister's full recovery could have induced Delia to come to this house party. She much preferred their quiet little corner of Surrey to a fortnight with the
ton
.

“Robyn is very handsome.” Lily raised one eyebrow suggestively.

“Yes, quite. But, Lily”—Delia took a step closer to Lily and lowered her voice to a whisper—“there's been some scandal about Mr. Sutherland and the plunging bodices. Gossip has it he's had his hand in his share of—”

A sharp rap sounded on the door and they jumped guiltily apart. Delia opened it to find a fresh-faced maid in a white cap.

“Good evening, miss.” The maid curtsied. “I've come to stir up the fire. Your baths will be up straightaway. I hope you don't mind, Miss Somerset, but I asked the cook to hold your supper tray. I thought you might wish to bathe first.” She cast an eye over the muddy bonnet on the side of the washbasin.

“Oh, yes.” Delia stood away from the door so the maid could enter. “Very wise of you, um . . .”

“Polly, miss. I'm to help you ladies while you visit.” She crossed the room and poked the fire into a satisfying blaze, then gathered up the muddy cloak and bonnet. “May I take these down for a cleaning?”

“Well, I'd thought I would just throw them away,” Delia confessed. “They look to be beyond redemption.”

Polly ran a practiced eye over the garments. “I may be able to do something with them. Shall I try, miss?”

“By all means. Though I'll be overjoyed if I never see
either of them again,” Delia said to Lily in a low voice as Polly left the room.

Lily giggled. “Don't give them up for lost yet, Delia. The staff in a grand house like this one must have some laundering secrets far beyond the wildest imaginings of our meager household.”

“I suppose so,” Delia agreed, but she braced herself as another wave of homesickness washed through her. Perhaps their home was meager compared to this majestic estate, but it was theirs.

“What do you suppose the girls are doing right now?” Lily asked.

Delia smiled. Lily was thinking of home, too. “Oh, I imagine they're running about in their usual disorganized fashion, pestering Hannah to within an inch of her sanity.”

Hannah was the Somersets' housekeeper and second mother. She'd been with the family since Delia was in pinafores. None of the girls could imagine their home without her, now more than ever, when they missed their parents so desperately.

“How I would have loved to have Hannah come with us on this trip.” Lily sighed. But it was unthinkable that Iris, Violet, and Hyacinth should be left alone, and there wasn't anyone else to accompany Delia and Lily to Kent.

“I wouldn't,” Delia said, trying to lighten the mood. “Then both of you would have scolded me about the mud.”

“Indeed we would. Do you suppose Mr. Downing will continue to pursue Iris while we're away?”

The Downings were local gentry in the neighborhood. Mr. Edward Downing was the eldest son. Over the past few months he'd begun to show an interest in Iris, who, at not quite eighteen years of age, had blossomed into a notable beauty. “I think if he pursues her too ardently, then Hannah will pursue him, with a broom over her shoulder.”

Hannah was a staunch defender of virtue.

“You did say you left the yellow gown with Iris, didn't you?” Lily asked. “Perhaps that was unwise, Delia?”

“Not at all. The gown fits
her
!”

Their peals of laughter were interrupted by another brisk knock on the door. Delia opened it to find two footmen carrying a large tub followed by a line of maids with steaming pitchers of water. Polly hurried in at the end of this impressive parade with a stack of thick, soft towels.

“Here we are, miss. Place the tub by the fire, now, James. Yes, yes, that'll do.” Polly pulled a chair up next to the tub and placed the towels and a luxurious-looking cake of violet-colored soap on it.

Polly nodded to Lily. “Your bath is ready too, miss. I have a supper tray for you as well.”

“Delightful. Night, Delia,” Lily said, hurrying off to her own room without a backward glance. “You'll feel more yourself when you've bathed.”

“Do you need help with your dress, miss?” Polly asked.

Delia shook her head. “No, thank you. I can manage.”

Polly curtsied and followed Lily, pulling the connecting door closed behind her.

“Well, that's Lily for you,” Delia mumbled to herself. “Not a speck of dirt or mud to be found on her anywhere, but ready to sacrifice a limb to get to her bath.”

She couldn't blame Lily, though. The bath looked like heaven. Polly had poured some kind of subtly scented oil into it. Delia picked up the pretty cake of soap and sniffed at it. Yes, it was the same scent. Jasmine perhaps?

Scented swirls of steam rose temptingly above the water and beckoned to Delia, who nearly ripped off her dress in her eagerness to get into the bath. She did take the time to wipe the worst of the mud off her body with a damp towel beforehand, however. She had no desire for a second mud bath today.

“Ahhhhh.” She could not restrain a moan of pleasure
when she was up to her neck in the scented water. It was bliss to be surrounded by the pure, delicate fragrance of the oil. Even the water felt softer. Did the scented oil make it so? Or did the aristocracy enjoy better water than the rest of England?

Delia lingered in the bath until the warm water had soaked into every one of her sore muscles. When it started to cool, she ducked her head under to rinse the worst of the mud from her hair; then she washed it with the cake of soap and rinsed it again.

She'd changed into her white cotton night rail and was drying her hair by the fire when there was a knock on the hall door. “Yes?”

Polly entered the room with a supper tray. “Your supper, miss,” she began, but stopped when she saw Delia. “Oh my, you look ever so much better!” Polly clapped a hand over her mouth and turned bright red. “That is . . .”

Delia smiled. “It's all right, Polly. I know I looked a fright when I arrived.”

“Will you be needing anything else tonight, miss?”

“No, I don't think so, thank you. I'm off to bed. Good night.”

“Good night, miss.”

But Delia didn't go to bed. She rose and crept to the door that connected her room to Lily's and listened. Silence. She eased the door open and peered in. She assumed the lump in the center of the bed was her sister. All she could see of her under the thick coverlet was a tangled mass of curling dark blond hair, but the lump snored like Lily.

Delia backed out of the room and closed the door with a quiet click. Good. Lily needed to rest. Now if she could convince her own body to succumb to sleep, all would be well. She should be exhausted. She glanced at the supper tray Polly had left. She should be ravenous, too, but instead
of eating, she retrieved the goblet from the tray and left the food untouched. Maybe the wine would help her sleep.

Today's coach accident had been minor, but Delia had been terrified when the axle broke. The coach had lurched and shuddered and skittered madly across the road before it at last staggered to a stop. How must her parents have felt when they realized their carriage was careening into a ditch? Delia heard the terrified screams of the horses and the sound of splintering wood in her nightmares as if she'd been there.

Their mother wouldn't have wanted them to come to Bellwood. Oh, Millicent Chase hadn't been bitter about being shunned by the
ton
. She'd never regretted her decision to marry Henry Somerset. Delia's parents had been madly in love.

But Millicent knew every unsavory truth of the life she'd left behind. The posturing. The idleness and vanity. The arrogance and vindictiveness. The cruelty. She hadn't hidden these truths from her children. Her mother wouldn't have wanted two of her beloved daughters tangled up in such a world.

Lord Carlisle's world.

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