A Wicked Way to Win an Earl (7 page)

“That depends. Do you look like your mother? Aside from your eyes, that is.”

Delia had begun to hasten back to the house, but now she stopped and turned to glare at him. “What difference does that make?” Her voice was cold.

He stopped as well. “I should think it was obvious.”

His tone was so reasonable it made Delia want to scream.

“If you favor your mother,” he went on, “there will be more than one person at this house party who recognizes you as Millicent Chase's daughter.”

Oh, no.
Delia stared at him, and a cold shiver darted down her back. She'd planned to fade into the background like any respectable wallflower, but now that option was evaporating before her eyes. She hadn't even considered the
possibility the other guests might recognize her or Lily as members of the Chase family. Not that they were, really. At least, not in any way that mattered to these people.

He was waiting for a reply. “I look just like her. Both Lily and I do.”

“Ah.” He nodded. “Then your appearance at Bellwood will be a new chapter in the old story, and doubtless the most diverting source of gossip for the next several weeks. You and your sister should prepare yourselves.”

What an awful prospect. Delia's shoulders slumped just thinking about it. Gossip, snide comments, whispers, and she and Lily caught right in the center of it. The next two weeks couldn't pass quickly enough for her.

Lord Carlisle's casual laughter interrupted her thoughts. “You look glum, Miss Somerset. Come, now. It won't be as bad as you imagine.”

“Oh, I'm certain it will be far worse than I imagine,” she replied, trying to sound as if she didn't care. “I must say you don't seem at all concerned, however. Remember, my lord, this story began with my mother publicly jilting your father. The gossips will linger over that as if it were a fine wine.”

There. It was out in the open now. There was no way to take it back. Delia bit her lip and wondered whether she'd gone too far.

But to her surprise, Lord Carlisle only lifted a shoulder in a careless shrug. “Yes, I imagine that's true. Perhaps this house party won't be as dull as I feared.”

Delia felt a tirade coming on, but for Lily's sake she struggled to keep calm. “Then this is a fortunate occurrence, my lord. For you, that is. It would be terrible indeed if you were
bored
. But won't your mother find it difficult?” He might find it easy to bear, even amusing, but no one would be gossiping about
him
. “It will, after all, be her name on the lips of every gossip.”

And my name. And Lily's. And my mother's.
Delia felt a little stab at her heart when she thought of it.

“You haven't met my mother yet, have you, Miss Somerset? I think you'll find she tolerates the gossip very well. She's weathered worse.”

Delia didn't doubt she had. As members of the
ton
, the Sutherlands were accustomed to the sniping and whispering that took place behind fans and over billiard tables. Perhaps they even participated in it themselves. It was likely.

But she and Lily? No. It would be far more difficult for them. Difficult enough, in fact, it was best if Lily knew nothing about it. With a little luck and some maneuvering on Delia's part, she wouldn't have to know. Delia sighed. They'd been here less than a day and already she was keeping secrets from her sister.

“Well, then.” She resumed her brisk pace back to the house. “It's settled. Let the scandal and gossip commence at your pleasure, my lord.”

“Not a moment too soon.” A satisfied smile played around his lips. “Scandal and gossip are much more diverting than chess.”

Chapter Six

She turned on her heel and marched, stiff-backed, in the direction of the house. He strolled after her, leading Ceres beside him. A shadowy, hazy memory drifted just at the corner of his mind, but he couldn't quite drag it to the surface.

The sun had come up over Bellwood, and it was as if it shone for no other reason than to highlight the thousands of threads of gold in the rich brown tendrils that escaped her hairpins. He watched as the light sifted lovingly through the heavy locks and lit up strand after strand.

Then he remembered.

He'd been ten or eleven years old and out for a ride with his father. Alec didn't recall what they'd been doing, though spending any time with his father had been a rare enough occurrence during his childhood. Perhaps they'd been checking the fencing around one of the far-flung fields that surrounded Bellwood. Hadn't his father's steward been with them?

Alec, a victim of youthful high spirits like most young
lads at that age, had taken it into his head to jump one of the fences. He'd circled in front of it a few times to calculate the height and the required speed and distance at which he should initiate the jump. He smiled a little now, thinking of it. He'd been very serious about it, in the way only an eleven-year-old contemplating a foolish trick can be serious.

But he'd miscalculated. Badly. And he'd fallen. Hard.

One minute he'd been gleefully charging the fence, and the next he'd been flat on his back, stunned and gasping for breath as he watched the tree branches above his head move in and out of focus. He'd staggered at last to a standing position, but he'd been unsteady on his feet for some time afterward, the wind knocked out of him.

That was just how he'd felt this morning when he'd gotten a good look at Delia Somerset. As though he'd miscalculated. Badly. As if he'd had the wind knocked clean out of him. Today, however, he felt none of the sick dizziness he'd experienced when he was eleven. No, it was more like . . . He paused, trying to think of a way to describe how it felt. Ah, yes. It was like he'd drunk too much of an old, fine Scotch whiskey. He might be dizzy and shaky the next morning, but it was difficult to regret the overindulgence.

He shook his head, amazed at himself. Had he actually just imagined the sun shone only to set fire to the gold in Miss Somerset's hair? Oh, that was pure poetry, much along the same pathetic lines as
les yeux de feu bleu
, in fact.

He traced the slim line of her back as she marched in front of him like a soldier on parade. He couldn't imagine now how he'd ever thought her features were unremarkable. Had it been too dark? Had it been the mud? Or had he been so intent on punishing her for interrupting his liaison with Maggie that he'd willfully overlooked it? Alec didn't overlook things, particularly not potentially explosive things like uncommonly fetching, unsuitable young ladies. He'd known
beforehand she was the second. He should have been on the alert for the first.

God, that blush
. He'd seen a hint of it yesterday evening. It had startled him then, but watching it wash over her cheeks and her slim, pale neck and throat this morning had aroused him to the point of pain. Did she blush like that everywhere? She was vivid everywhere—the rich golden brown hair, the wide eyes, such a deep blue they were almost indigo. The pale, creamy, translucent skin. And her figure . . . Today's plain blue dress looked to Alec just like yesterday's plain blue dress, but Delia Somerset was mistaken if she thought her Surrey camouflage would fool him. He ran a hand over his mouth. It was best if he didn't think about how her body would look awash with that tantalizing blush, but Alec couldn't deny he deeply regretted not having seen her in the infamously snug yellow gown.

One thing was clear. There was no way he could overlook Delia Somerset
now
. It made the situation so much more complicated. He could have dismissed a plain, country rustic. Even a calculating fortune hunter was easily dealt with. Robyn could simply take a new mistress. Problem solved.

But this girl? No. He was a cynical bastard, and even he'd been moved to spout inane drivel about the sun and golden strands of hair. Robyn was
not
a cynical bastard, and he'd chase Delia Somerset until he gasped for breath and his legs buckled beneath him. She'd have Robyn stamping, panting, and sweating like an overbred stallion before the first case of champagne had run dry at the house party.

Something would have to be done. Robyn wouldn't want to give her up, though.

Robyn.
Christ
. Alec didn't know what to expect from Robyn anymore, and Robyn didn't confide in him, not since Alec had become the earl. What had once been a warm brotherly affection seemed to have cooled and hardened into an icy detachment, one that grew icier by the day.

Ever since their father died, Alec had been chasing his own tail like a rabid dog, trying to keep his brother in line. There hadn't been anyone to manage Robyn during that first year after their father's death. Not long after Alec had inherited the title, the extent to which the estates had been mismanaged had become painfully clear. The responsibilities had fallen on Alec's shoulders with the force of an anvil dropped from the roof of Bellwood.

Robyn had taken up with a fast crowd of wild London bucks. He had the family's dark good looks and deep pockets, and though he was merely a second son, he was still a Sutherland. That was as good as hard currency among the
ton
. The ladies adored him, particularly those ladies who teetered on a fine line of respectability, one scandal away from toppling headfirst into the
demimonde
. Worse, Robyn fancied himself very sophisticated. In truth, he was almost as inexperienced and naïve as Delia Somerset.

Alec stole another glance at that straight back. She hadn't turned around once since they'd begun walking back to the house. He chuckled, thinking of her disapproving stare when he'd so boldly mentioned his
parts
. It was obvious Miss Somerset was not often in the company of gentlemen who dared to mention their . . . What had she called them? Their
unmentionables
. Could it be the lovely lady was a prude?

Yet there'd been that one moment. Alec wouldn't call it flirting, because young ladies flirted in order to pique a man's interest, and Miss Somerset had flirted only to teach him a lesson. It was a little morality play disguised as flirting, which was droll of her, he admitted. It had piqued his interest. Not only his interest. One other thing had been
piqued
. So she was a clever, lovely prude with a latent trace of wicked? How titillating. Of all Robyn's scrapes, this one could prove to be the most amusing. For the first time in recent memory, Alec was beginning to look forward to a house party.

“Miss Somerset!”

Alec jerked his head up and came to an abrupt halt. He watched, dumbfounded, as Robyn bounded across the courtyard, his eyes fixed on Delia Somerset.

Alec glanced up at the sky. The sun had just crested the roofline of Bellwood. It couldn't be later than nine o'clock. In the
morning
. That meant it was before three o'clock. In the
afternoon
.

Never mind the poetry and the sun and the strands of delicate golden hair wafting on the breeze. He was witnessing a full-fledged miracle right before his eyes. Robyn was awake. He was, against all odds, alert and standing in an upright position. He was dressed. He was
outdoors
.

“Miss Somerset.” Robyn came to a halt in front of her and took both her hands in his. “I'm very happy to see you again.” He smiled into her eyes and raised one of her hands to his lips. Then Robyn glanced behind Delia and noticed Alec. “Oh. Good morning, Alec,” he said with far less enthusiasm.

“Robyn.” Alec kept his voice neutral, but behind his bland expression, he was astonished.

Alec studied his brother. Robyn's eyes were bloodshot and his valet had clearly shaved him in a hurry. His clothes were rumpled.
Ah
. So it wasn't a true miracle, then. Robyn hadn't awoken early. He'd just returned home from last night's entertainment. If Alec cared to look, he'd doubtless find Shepherdson skulking about the hallways of Bellwood, cravat askew and reeking of spirits.

Still, for Robyn to appear at breakfast in a lucid condition was a miracle of sorts, and that was bloody disconcerting enough, since this astounding attentiveness was no doubt for Delia Somerset's benefit.

For her part, Miss Somerset seemed a bit taken aback at Robyn's effusive greeting, but pleased nonetheless. “Thank you, Mr. Sutherland, and good morning. Lily and I are delighted to be here.”

“I heard from my sisters you had a rough journey,” Robyn said. “Something about a broken axle and a hay cart? My apologies that I wasn't here to greet you last night. I was detained at a previous engagement.”

Alec snorted. Which of Robyn's
engagements
had kept him this time, he wondered. Tossing dice perhaps? Tossing back tumblers of whiskey? Tossing a barmaid's skirts over her head? Likely all of the above.

“Have you been out for a walk this morning?” Robyn asked Delia, offering his arm to escort her into the breakfast room.

“Yes.” Delia took his arm. “The idea of exploring a bit of the park proved too tempting to resist.”

“Of course.” Robyn guided Delia toward the front entrance. “And you, Alec? I see you've also been out this morning.” Robyn swept his gaze over Ceres and Alec's muddy riding boots.

Alec smiled pleasantly at his brother. “I often ride early in the morning, Robyn. But perhaps you weren't aware of that.”

“I wasn't aware of it, no.” Robyn shrugged. “I don't track
your
every move, Alec. This way, Miss Somerset,” he added before Alec could reply. “My mother is anticipating meeting you. Miss Lily and my sisters are awake, as well.”

Delia looked from one brother to the other with a puzzled expression. No doubt she could feel the tension, just as she could feel the sun on her face. The sun in reverse, that was. The dark thing that surged between him and Robyn could devour the sun.

The whole family was assembled in the breakfast room. Charlotte and Eleanor were yawning over their morning chocolate. Lily Somerset sat next to them wearing a pale lilac-colored morning gown and looking none the worse for her adventure the night before. His mother was seated across from them, sipping tea and looking as placid as ever.

“I found Miss Somerset.” Robyn presented Delia with the kind of flourish usually reserved for royalty. “She was taking advantage of the fine day with an early morning walk.”

Alec watched Delia with interest. Another pink blush rose in her cheeks, as though she was embarrassed by Robyn's fanfare. He wished she'd stop blushing. It was damned distracting.

“Mother,” Alec said, dragging his attention away from Delia. “May I present Miss Delia Somerset? Miss Somerset, this is my mother, Catherine, the Countess of Carlisle.”

Lady Carlisle smiled at Delia and nodded politely. “Miss Somerset, it's a pleasure to meet you. You and your sister are welcome at Bellwood.”

Delia dipped into a graceful curtsy. “Thank you, Lady Carlisle, for your kind invitation. I'm happy to meet you.”

Alec's mouth twisted. Under all that propriety and politeness he knew his mother burned with unladylike curiosity about Millicent Chase's daughters. His mother had known Millicent—they'd been debutantes together. Though any of the ladies who sat around the breakfast table would die of mortification before admitting it, each of them was thinking the same thing. If Millicent Chase hadn't fled headlong into a dark London night, Catherine Grey would never have married Hart Sutherland.

That was reason enough not to like the chits. If they had any sense at all, meeting his mother should have Delia and Lily Somerset quaking in their half boots. Still, Lady Carlisle could be boiling with rage or overcome with joy at meeting Millicent's daughters, and her expression would remain smooth and unruffled either way. In fact, an entire troop of baboons dressed in the Carlisle livery could seat themselves at the breakfast table and help themselves to toast and tea, and Lady Carlisle wouldn't turn a hair.

His mother was a bit like an exotic species of animal that had adapted to an intensely stressful environment by
developing a new appendage. Lady Carlisle's ability to appear placid no matter what kind of chaos erupted around her had served her well during her many years of marriage to Hart Sutherland.

“You put me in mind of your mother, Miss Somerset,” Lady Carlisle said gently. “You look very much like her.” She paused. “I was sorry to hear about your parents' passing last spring.”

It had to be said, and it was just as well it was said now rather than later. “Thank you, my lady,” Delia murmured. Her voice was steady, but a shadow passed over her suddenly pale face. Unlike his mother, Delia Somerset hadn't developed the art of affecting indifference. Alec watched dispassionately as the emotions flitted across her face. It was fascinating—almost like watching an artist painting on a canvas, except it was both beautiful and awful at once.

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