A Wicked Way to Win an Earl (8 page)

What must it be like, to reveal so much? To be at the mercy of every casual observer? That kind of transparency was a disadvantage. He doubted Miss Somerset was good at games, especially those that required a certain cold-blooded strategy.

Games like chess, for instance.

“It's fine out this morning,” he said, breaking the silence. He took a seat next to his mother and signaled one of the footmen for coffee. “Will you take advantage of the day to show our guests around the grounds?” Alec addressed this question to Charlotte and Eleanor.

Both of his sisters gaped at him.

He did not usually appear at the breakfast table. When he did, he didn't make idle chitchat, or offer suggestions about how his sisters might spend their day. Both Charlotte and Ellie appeared to be stunned into silence, but after a moment Charlotte gathered herself together. “Is it fine?” She looked vaguely toward the window.

“It is,” Robyn said with a teasing grin. “Think of what
you can accomplish today, Charlotte. The day is much longer than your usual, since you're up so much earlier.”

Eleanor lowered her cup of chocolate daintily to her saucer. “You're one to talk, Robyn. You're up so much earlier today, by noon you'll think it's tomorrow!”

Charlotte, Lily, and Delia laughed. Even Alec and Robyn grinned, and Ellie seemed to rouse from her morning stupor. “There's a fine prospect of the lake at the end of the south lawn,” she said, “and a lovely little folly where we can sit and sketch today, if that sounds agreeable.”

“We should have plenty of time for a sketching party, given how
long
the day is. A walk to the east lawn won't be too taxing.” Charlotte stretched languidly and darted a teasing glance at Robyn. “Mama, what time do you need us tonight? We'll be back for luncheon, of course.”

“Six will be in plenty of time,” their mother said. “Our guests will arrive a little later.”

His mother had planned a small family dinner party for that evening, so Delia and Lily could be introduced to their nearest neighbors before the house party got under way in earnest the following day.

“Splendid.” Ellie sipped her chocolate. “Robyn, will you accompany us?”

“Yes, please, if I may.”

“Of course. You can carry our sketching supplies. Alec, will you come, as well?”

The table went quiet for a moment. Heads swiveled in Alec's direction. He was surprised to be asked, but not as surprised as they'd be if he accepted. He was tempted to accept for that reason alone. He glanced at Miss Somerset, who was quietly drinking her tea.

“No, I'm afraid I can't. I have some business to take care of this morning. I'll see you all this evening at dinner.”

Alec could almost hear Robyn's sigh of relief.

Chapter Seven

Delia stood at the foot of the stairs, sketchbook under her arm, tapping the toe of her half boot on the elegant black-and-white-checkered marble floor.

Tap, tap, tap.

Rylands stood stiffly by the door, watching her from under his bushy gray eyebrows. “We
are
embarking on a simple sketching party, aren't we, Rylands?” she asked, turning to him. “I did hear correctly, didn't I?”

“Yes, miss. I believe so.”

Tap, tap, sigh.
“Because with this much fuss, one would think we were being presented at court.”

“Yes, miss.”

First Charlotte had deemed her pink bonnet “a fright.” Then Eleanor declared her half boots “pinched her dreadfully,” and Lily realized she'd forgotten her blue ribbon. Each of them had scurried back up the stairs in turn to address these fashion
faux pas
, which left Delia alone in the entrance hall, rolling her eyes and tapping her toes.

Tap, tap, grumble, sigh.

At this rate they would have to sketch in the dark.

“Ready, girls?” Charlotte called gaily at last, skipping down the stairs and into the foyer. They were just about to sail forth when Eleanor came to an abrupt halt. “Wait. Where's Robyn? I thought he was going to carry our sketching supplies.”

Charlotte snorted. “Robyn disappeared back up the stairs a half hour ago to bathe and change.” She tied the ribbons of yet another pink bonnet under her chin. “He promised to join us later. James will carry the supplies.” She gestured to a footman so burdened with bundles and baskets he looked like a camel about to embark on a journey across the desert.

“I should have known,” Eleanor said. “I can't recall the last time Robyn
carried
anything. No doubt he needs to bathe. He was out all night. He didn't return home until just before breakfast this morning, you know.”

“Oh, dear!” Lily's face was a picture of dismay. “Surely that's not true?”

“Oh, yes. I'm afraid so,” Ellie said. “Robyn is very wicked.”

“I wouldn't call Robyn
wicked
,” Charlotte protested. “How can you say so, Eleanor?”

“Well, not precisely wicked perhaps.” She glanced at James and then lowered her voice to a whisper. “But Lady Audley, Charlotte!”

Charlotte shrugged. “All gentlemen of the
ton
have mistresses.”

Lily's mouth dropped open and Delia felt her own face flood with heat. As the eldest of the young ladies, she should be the one to put a stop to the conversation, but she remained silent, half-ashamed, but also burning with curiosity.

“Oh, it's not the
having
of a mistress,” Eleanor continued
airily, shocking both Delia and Lily again with her cavalier air. “It's the antics, Charlotte. The drinking, the gambling, and the bordello, you know.”

The bordello!
This time even Delia gasped. But unfortunately Charlotte cut her sister off at this interesting point in the conversation. “Robyn behaves like all fashionable young men. Though of course, being a Sutherland, he pushes it rather farther than is wise.”

“He's going to push Alec right off the edge of sanity if he continues,” Eleanor said.

Charlotte grinned. “Poor Alec! But he's had mistresses of his own, you know, Ellie. Maybe he still does.”

Indeed he does!
Delia bit down on her bottom lip so she wouldn't shout the words aloud.

“But Alec is discreet,” Eleanor objected. “One doesn't hear of carriage races and wagering and bordellos in relation to Alec.”

“Did you say something, Delia?” Lily asked.

Three bonneted heads turned to look expectantly at her.

“No, no,” Delia replied, trying to hide the strangled noise that had escaped her with a violent cough into her gloved hand. “I, ah, had something stuck in my throat, that's all.”

The
truth
—that was what was stuck in her throat. One may not hear of plunging bodices and mistresses in relation to Lord Carlisle, but one could see it with their own eyes if they happened along the road at the right time. Discreet indeed! He was about as discreet as a blow to the head.

“Perhaps not anymore,” Charlotte said, interrupting Delia's thoughts. “But before father died, there were rumors about Alec, you know. He was a rake,” she whispered delightedly. “I once overheard Lady Connelly say Alec was
such a delicious rogue
.” Charlotte frowned. “In fact, that was the precise phrase she used. Delicious rogue. She sounded rather disappointed he wasn't one anymore.”

Delia didn't know the difference between a rogue and a rake, but she was sure Lord Carlisle qualified as either. Or both. But she hadn't time to consider it.

“Lady Connelly is such a scandal,” Eleanor said with relish. “I'm sure she
was
disappointed.”

“I think it rather unfair on Alec,” Charlotte said then. “He was only twenty-eight years old when Father died. He hadn't the time to sow his oats after he inherited the title.”

Delia just managed to stifle an indignant snort.
He's making up for lost time now!

“No. He's never been the same since Father died, has he, Charlotte?” Eleanor's voice had gone rather quiet. “Alec never said anything to us, of course,” she said, addressing Lily and Delia now, “but I believe some rather appalling financial difficulties accompanied the title.”

“I overheard Lady Connelly say Father would have ruined the Sutherlands,” Charlotte said.

“Lady Connelly again!” Eleanor's voice was scathing. “She certainly has plenty to say, doesn't she?”

“Yes,” Charlotte replied. “And none of it is pleasant.”

“Did your father gamble?” Lily hesitated. “Keep, ah, mistresses?” She stumbled a little on the last word.

“Lily!” Delia cried, appalled she'd ask such a question.

“It's all right, Delia,” Charlotte said. “No, Lily, father didn't gamble or keep a mistress. Not that we know of anyway.”

Eleanor waved this away with a flick of her fingers, as though it were unthinkable. “If the gossip can be believed, he made bad investments. I'm not sure of the details, though I believe he considered most business ventures beneath his dignity.”

“Well, Alec has as much family pride as Father did, but apparently he has as much interest in profit as dignity. I've heard it whispered among the
ton
he's utterly ruthless. Not unscrupulous, of course. Well, not entirely,” Charlotte added, reconsidering.

Delia thought of his cold black eyes when he'd discovered her on the road yesterday, and a nasty shiver darted down her spine. It was easy to believe Lord Carlisle was ruthless. “Does Lady Connelly approve of this?” she asked archly, attempting to shake off her uneasiness.

Her companions laughed. “Indeed,” Eleanor replied. “Let us by all means seek Lady Connelly's approval!”

There was a brief silence; then Eleanor laughed again. “Do you remember when Alec collected all of the small statuary from the house and built an obstacle course, Charlotte? We ran races until Alec cracked Bacchus's wine chalice with the heel of his boot. We had to hide the statue behind the large rose arbor. It's still there, you know.”

Charlotte smiled. “There was that little foal, too. Do you remember, Eleanor? The poor thing was born sickly,” she said for Delia and Lily's benefit. “Small, too. Father wanted to have her shot, but Alec fed her by hand and walked and groomed her until she grew strong and healthy. He spent every day that summer in the barn with that foal. He named her Athena.”

“I remember. Alec was such fun back then!” Eleanor frowned. “I doubt he will recover his good humor once he's married. Lady Lisette isn't the sort who enjoys playful antics. There will be no oat-sowing for Alec once he's married to her.”


Married!
” Delia bit her tongue for all she was worth, but nothing could keep that shocked exclamation from escaping her mouth. She came to an abrupt halt and turned to stare at Eleanor, a torrent of questions frozen on her lips.

“Is Lord Carlisle engaged?” Lily asked.

“There is no official proposal yet,” Eleanor said. “But he's courting Lady Lisette Cecil. We expect them to be engaged by the end of the house party.”

“But that's not—” Delia began.

“Oh, look, Delia and Lily!” Charlotte interrupted, pointing. “Is this not the perfect place to sketch?”

Delia pressed her lips together for a moment, then turned to Charlotte. “It's lovely, Charlotte.” She gave her friend a wan smile.

What else could she say? That it wasn't possible for Lord Carlisle to be engaged because he'd been debauching a young woman from the village just yesterday? It was more than possible. It was probable. Charlotte was right. Gentlemen of the
ton
regularly kept mistresses. Why should a trifling thing like an engagement, or indeed a marriage, interfere with a gentleman's pleasures? Delia felt a surge of pity for this Lady Lisette, whoever she was. Eleanor's lip had curled with distaste when she'd said the lady's name, but to be shackled to such a husband? No woman deserved such a fate.

“Shall we stop here?” Eleanor asked. “The prospect is beautiful. We have a perfect view of the folly and down the lawn to the lake.”

The ladies agreed and James spread out the picnic blanket for them. Delia accepted her sketching supplies from him and took up a perch on the blanket. She turned to a blank page in her book and attempted to focus on the picturesque view in front of her.

The folly was charming, small and dainty, like a doll's toy. The lake was visible just beyond it, flashing in the sun and winding gracefully through the trees like a length of blue satin ribbon. Her companions fell silent, each absorbed in creating a masterpiece. The only sound was the faint scrape of pencils against paper.

Delia gripped her own pencil in her fingers and stared blindly ahead, her hand motionless on the page. How could she focus on her sketch when a libertine like the Earl of Carlisle roamed the estate like a hungry tiger among timid gazelles?

One of the few advantages of social inferiority was invisibility, drat it. She shouldn't have to feel like a gazelle. She should feel like a chameleon or another one of those odd little lizards that lived in Africa. She'd read all about how they could change color with their environment. So why did she feel hunted, as if Lord Carlisle were ready to snap her fragile bones between his greedy jaws?

Delia placed the tip of her pencil against her paper and began to sketch a series of delicate vertical lines. Before long the slender legs of a gazelle emerged in the center of her page.

She couldn't shake the suspicion he'd been hoping to catch her alone this morning. It was too coincidental he'd appear in the exact same place not five minutes after she left the manor for her walk. Had he been waiting for her?

Delia made a few more quick strokes on the page. Her gazelle now had a face, a bow around its slender neck, and a lush meadow under its feet, but it still didn't look pleased. It looked nervous, as if it expected a predator to pounce upon it at any moment.

Then Lord Carlisle had been so determined to walk with her! And not just talk to her, but flirt with her. Oh, she may be innocent by
ton
standards, but she knew when a gentleman was flirting with her, especially when he did it as audaciously as Lord Carlisle had. He'd asked her to comment on his
parts
, for heaven's sake. He'd stared into her eyes as if he could drown in their depths. It was ridiculous.

Delia clutched at her pencil as she remembered. Ah, now she could see why the gazelle was so nervous. The poor thing. A fiendish predator had crept up behind her. This hideous creature looked like a man, with a man's body and a man's face and distinctive wavy dark hair, but it had a tiger's claws and hideous razor-sharp teeth in its gaping mouth.

It wasn't just the flirting, though. Gentlemen flirted. It
meant nothing—even less than nothing with a man of Lord Carlisle's ilk. No, it was the way he'd seemed to relish the idea of the
ton
reviving the old gossip about her mother. Why should that please him when his own mother was a player in that ugly little drama? Then he'd seemed downright gleeful to find she so strongly resembled her mother. What difference should it make to him?

Delia ran her pencil furiously across the page. The horrid tiger man had crept up behind the gazelle now, a frightening leer on his face. The awful paws with their jagged claws were mere inches from her neck, poised for attack.

Was it, as he'd said, that he found house parties a bore, and the gossip would prove entertaining? Of course, a spoiled aristocrat like Lord Carlisle would be accustomed to being entertained at all times. Hadn't he said something about chess?

Delia moved to a blank section of her page and drew a chessboard. A white queen faced off against a black king across the checkered expanse. The king was leering in much the same manner as the tiger man.

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