A Wicked Way to Win an Earl (9 page)

Well, a ruthless man like Lord Carlisle would appreciate chess, wouldn't he? Even his own sisters admitted he was ruthless, and from what Delia could tell, they didn't know about even a fraction of his sins. They thought
Robyn
was wicked! She'd been a little shocked to hear of Robyn's antics, but they paled in comparison to Lord Carlisle frolicking in the woods with one woman while he was as good as engaged to another.

Delia supposed his affianced bride was the belle of her season. Nothing less would do for Lord Carlisle, she was sure. Charlotte and Eleanor had said he had as much family pride as their father had, if fewer scruples.

The pencil skittered down to the bottom left corner of the page. Delia drew a huge black horse rearing back, its enormous hooves pawing at the air. The horse was attached
to a shiny black lacquered traveling coach with the Carlisle crest emblazoned on the door. The carriage had a broken axle.

Delia stopped sketching and studied her page. A quiet laugh escaped her. Oh, it was a sketch worthy of Rowlandson himself! She'd have to burn it, of course, since the dreadful tiger bore far too recognizable a resemblance to Lord Carlisle.

She was busily adding a bushy tiger's tail when all at once her amusement turned to uneasiness. She stared at the tiger and the gazelle. Something was wrong . . .

Her eyes darted over the chessboard with the battling queen and king, down to the sketch of the horse and carriage and then back to the center of the page. The gazelle stood trembling in the middle of her meadow, the man tiger approaching her menacingly from behind. Delia drew a box around them, like a frame around a picture.

Suddenly all of the blood drained from her face. Oh, no. It couldn't be! Gentlemen of the
ton
were idle, vain, and selfish, but even Lord Carlisle couldn't be as wicked as that—

“May I see your sketch, Delia?” Lily had laid aside her own sketchbook and was holding out her hand for Delia's, a sweet smile on her face.

Delia slammed her sketchbook closed. “No!” Her voice was a shriek, and she slapped her hand over the cover of the book protectively.

Lily stared at her. “Whatever is the matter, Delia?” She started to rise to her feet.

“Nothing!” Delia squeaked. Making an enormous effort to remain calm and lower her voice, she said, “Nothing is the matter, Lily. I'm only embarrassed because I haven't gotten very far with my sketch.”

Lily settled back onto her corner of the blanket. “Very well,” she replied after a moment. “You don't have to show
me.” She eyed her sister with concern. “Are you tired from yesterday, dear?”

Delia nodded, relieved to have an excuse for her bizarre behavior. “Yes. I believe I am, Lily. I beg your pardon. I didn't mean to snap at you.”

Charlotte closed her sketchbook and stretched her arms over her head. “I've exhausted my artistic inspiration for today. Shall we return to the house for luncheon? I believe I'll have a nap and a bath before the dinner party this evening.”

“Yes, I am for the house, as well,” Eleanor said. She closed her own book and rose from the blanket.

“Are you coming, Delia?” Lily asked.

“No. Not yet. You go on without me.” Delia pasted a smile on her face. “I believe I'll take a few more minutes and see if I can't finish my sketch.”

“Don't stay too long,” Lily said. “I think you need a nap before dinner, as well.”

“I won't. I do feel rather weary,” Delia said meekly, trying to look exhausted.

She didn't open her sketchbook again until the others were out of sight; then she raised the cover carefully, as if the tiger man were lying in wait for his chance to leap from the page and sink his deadly claws into her neck.

Then again, it wasn't her
neck
she needed to worry about. It was her virtue and her reputation in danger of being torn to bits.

It was as clear as the page in front of her. Lord Carlisle was going to attempt to seduce her. Not because he desired her, of course, but to amuse himself and put the Somerset family in their place once and for all. It would be nothing at all to him to ruin an innocent for sport, and what better way to relieve his boredom than to add a final chapter to the scandalous tale of Millicent Chase and Hart Sutherland? Wasn't it fortunate for him she looked so much like her
mother? It added just the right finishing touch to his fiendish scheme.

Her mother
. For one horrible moment Delia felt so alone tears gathered behind her eyes, but then she was gripped by a surge of fury so intense she had to struggle to catch her breath. She frowned at her sketch, the tears evaporating along with all the pity she'd felt earlier for the delicate gazelle. Was the foolish thing just going to stand there, a useless bow about its neck, while a predator threatened to devour her?

She'd be
damned
if she'd be the gazelle in this scenario.

An awful, foolish, delightful plan was taking shape in her head. It was a mad scheme, and Delia had promised Lily she'd be the soul of propriety for the duration of the house party. Now here she was, letting her temper lead her into just the kind of mischief that would infuriate her sister.

But then, Lily didn't have to know, did she? What difference did one more secret make?

No, no, no. She'd best put it out of her mind. It was reckless in the extreme to play games with Lord Carlisle. He was an earl, for goodness' sake, and he was her host, so she was technically under his protection at the moment. He was also haughty, arrogant, and dismissive—not a man who'd take kindly to being toyed with.

But that was exactly what made it so irresistible. The great Lord Carlisle, bested at his own game! How satisfying it would be to show him that even an aristocrat with wealth and a title could be humbled, and by an insignificant girl from some obscure village in Surrey, no less! Oh, it was too delicious.

“Am I late?” a deep male voice asked.

A shadow fell across her sketchbook and Delia's heart leapt into her throat. “Oh!” She closed her sketchbook and scrambled to her feet.

“I apologize, Miss Somerset. I didn't mean to startle you.
Where have the others gone? I thought we were having a sketching party?”

Delia smiled up at Robyn Sutherland, relief weakening her knees for a moment. “We are. That is, we were. It's been hours. The others returned to the house to rest before dinner. I'm just about to return myself.”

“Ah. I see.” Robyn shook his head with mock regret. “I'm afraid my sketching will never improve at this rate.”

Delia looked into his twinkling black eyes and couldn't help but return his crooked grin. Perhaps Robyn Sutherland
was
a little wicked, but he was also so pleasant and charming it was impossible not to like him. “No, I'm afraid it won't. I'm sorry for it, Mr. Sutherland. A gentleman who can't sketch is shocking indeed.”

“At least let me escort you back to the house. It will be a kindness on your part to save me from utter disgrace.” He held out his hand to carry her sketchbook.

Delia hesitated briefly, but then handed over the book.

“May I take you through some of the formal gardens close to the house on the way back?” He tucked her hand into the crook of his arm. “It's too early for the roses to be in full bloom, but it's still a pleasant walk.”

“By all means,” Delia said. “I would be delighted.”

Chapter Eight

Alec spent the morning and part of the afternoon in his study working on estate business. He'd just dismissed his steward when there was a knock on the door. His mother entered and took a seat in front of Alec's massive mahogany desk.

“Well?” He leaned back in his chair. “What are your initial impressions of our guests?”

“Miss Somerset looks very much like her mother,” the dowager said.

“Yes. She mentioned there is a strong family resemblance. What was her mother like?”

“She was a diamond of the first water, of course, labeled an Incomparable less than two weeks into her season. She also had some of the noblest blood in England running through her veins, being a Chase. That's why your father wanted to marry her, of course. He began courting her as soon as she was out.”

Alec began to wish he'd poured himself a glass of whiskey.

That sounded just like his father. He'd always insisted on the best of everything, and believed without question he was entitled to it. Alec looked at his mother and his face softened a little. Even when his father had the best in his hand, he'd not appreciated it.

“To be truthful,” she said, “I always thought Millicent Somerset rather intriguing.”

Intriguing
. Bloody hell. He was beginning to suspect that was a family trait, too. “Interesting choice of word. Go on.”

His mother lifted one elegant shoulder in a shrug. “Millicent and I were friends after a fashion. But we were rivals, too, and young ladies of the
ton
who are competing for social supremacy aren't encouraged to be intimate. Her family was certainly unimaginative enough, but she was not much like the rest of the Chases.”

“Yes, I think that's a safe conclusion.” Alec crossed over to a crystal decanter on a side table and poured a finger of whiskey into a glass.

The countess paused. “She was brave,” she said unexpectedly.

Alec lowered his glass from his lips and studied his mother. “Brave?”

Lady Carlisle looked up into her son's dark eyes. “Of course, Alec. She was exceptionally so. You must see what she did took tremendous courage.”

Alec took a swallow of whiskey. “I can see what she did was tremendously foolish.” His tone was harsh.

“Perhaps,” his mother replied, as though considering it. “Her family certainly thought so. The
ton
did
,
as well, though a few of her friends stood by her, the Countess of Donegall, for one.”

“What, the Irish countess?”

“She married an Irish earl, but she's English—the Earl
of Dunclare's daughter, formerly Lady Caroline Swan. She helped Millicent escape that night. The
ton
shunned Caroline for her part in the debacle. We all believed her ruined, but Donegall married her before the end of the season. By all accounts, he dotes on her still.”

Alec gave his mother a bland smile. “A happy ending for all, it seems. Do you think Millicent Chase was foolish?”

His mother gave another shrug. “I think it hardly matters now. This all happened years ago. Millicent is dead. What difference does it make if she was brave, or foolish, or both?”

Alec had been staring out the row of French doors that opened into the gardens, but now he turned and faced his mother. “Charlotte and Eleanor tell me Robyn is enamored of Miss Somerset. It was his idea to invite her here. He teased the girls into it.”

Lady Carlisle paused for a moment, her eyes fixed on him. Then she nodded. “Ah. I see. You object to Miss Somerset's presence here on Robyn's account?”

“Yes, I do.”

The countess folded her hands in her lap. Alec had the distinct impression she was going to choose her words with care. “You are concerned because she has no fortune? Or because of the scandal?”

Alec frowned. “The scandal. The lack of fortune isn't desirable, but it could be overlooked.”

“The scandal is decades old, Alec,” his mother said. “Certainly a marriage between our family and the Somerset family would revive it, but is this a reason to prevent a match if there is true affection between them?”

Alec was struck dumb for a moment.
Was
there true affection between them? He hadn't even considered that possibility. He'd assumed this was just another one of Robyn's scandals. When had he stopped taking Robyn's feelings into account? He felt a pang of conscience at the thought, but he
shoved it back down. His one concern here was to protect the family and the Sutherland name.

“Have you forgotten what it was like, Mother?” he asked softly.

Catherine stiffened.

She hadn't forgotten, and neither had he. They couldn't forget those last few years before his father's death, when the family had been on the brink of ruin.

The girls hadn't understood what was happening, and Robyn had been away at school for most of it, but Alec remembered every single awful moment. Constant threats from creditors. His father hiding in his study with a bottle of whiskey at his elbow, snarling at the servants he was “not at home” to the business associates who called, day after day, demanding to speak to him. There had even been talk of selling Bellwood.

His mother's “friends” had anticipated her downfall with delight. On the surface the countess had maintained her placid calm, but the ordeal had drained her. Alec had seen the effort it took for her to hold her head up amid the gossip and the whispers. Robyn, Charlotte, and Eleanor would have been required to make the same effort had they been ruined. The family had been drowning in debt, the Sutherland name was fodder for the worst kind of gossip, and his mother had been on the brink of collapse.

Alec had been helpless to prevent any of it.

Then his father died. Alec would call his death fateful, but it was nothing as romantic as that. Alec wanted to believe that before death came some sort of understanding, but his father had died very much as he'd lived. Selfishly. Hart Sutherland had drowned himself in whiskey, and left his wife and elder son to pick up the pieces.

Alec had picked them up. Shilling by shilling. Pound by pound. Through sheer force of will and iron determination he'd rebuilt the Sutherland fortune. As was usual with the
ton
, once the fortune was secure, the Sutherland name was promptly resurrected.

He wasn't helpless now. He was the Earl of Carlisle, and he would be
damned
if a mere three years later he'd allow this family to suffer again. His sisters were now at marriageable ages. Their prospects would be damaged by another scandal. Delia Somerset might be brave and intriguing, but she was a scandal waiting to happen. She was disgrace. Disgrace with a beautiful face this time, but disgrace nonetheless. And Robyn—well, he might think he knew what he wanted, but Robyn and Delia Somerset came from different worlds. A marriage between them would lead to nothing but regret and misery.

His mother sighed. “Does Robyn have serious intentions toward Miss Somerset?”

Alec shrugged. “I haven't the vaguest idea. Robyn doesn't confide in me.”

“No, he doesn't. Not anymore.”

A hollow feeling filled Alec's chest at her words, but he let them pass. “The more pressing question is whether Robyn will do whatever is necessary to secure her if he
is
serious.”

He stared hard at his mother.

She went still. “You don't mean . . .”

“That if he truly wants her and I object to the match, he'll seduce her?” Alec shook his head. “As recently as a year ago I would have said there was no chance. That Robyn would never do anything so cruel or dishonorable. But now? I'm not sure. I don't know Robyn anymore.”

There was such profound sadness buried in those last few words, and his mother must have heard it, for her face softened as she looked at her elder son. But she didn't reply. They fell into a deep silence, each lost in their own thoughts. Finally, she roused herself. “What do you intend to do?” She searched Alec's face.

“Keep them apart as much as possible until the end of the house party, then send Miss Somerset right back to Surrey,” Alec said. “It won't take long for Robyn to move on to some other diversion once she's out of his way.”

Lady Carlisle shook her head. “You can't mean you intend to trail after Robyn for the next two weeks? You'll both go mad.”

“Not Robyn. Miss Somerset. The girl has barely been out of Surrey. She's never been to a house party like this one, and she's not accustomed to the attentions of gentlemen. A little charm and some harmless flirtation will keep her out of Robyn's way.”

He didn't mention to his mother that so far Miss Somerset appeared to find him as charming as a steaming pile of horse dung. Or that he was far more distracted by her than she appeared to be by him.
Or
that even the thought of matching wits with her made his groin tighten.

But Lady Carlisle was frowning nonetheless. “I don't like it, Alec. What about Lady Lisette? You've invited her to the house party, and it's my understanding you intend to propose to her by the end of it. She's accustomed to being the center of attention. I doubt she'll be happy to share yours with Miss Somerset. No.” She shook her head. “It's best if you don't interfere with Robyn's business. You can't expect to control every . . .”

Her voice trailed off as something outside the window caught her eye. Alec turned toward the French doors to see what had distracted her, and froze.

Robyn and Miss Somerset were walking together in the garden. One of her hands was tucked cozily into his arm; the other swung a bonnet by the strings. She was laughing up at Robyn, and he was gazing down at her with frank admiration, his lips quirked in a smile.

One afternoon
. Alec had spent one short afternoon in his study, and already Robyn looked like a bear with his leg
caught in a trap. Alec fixed his gaze on Miss Somerset's laughing pink lips and felt his face harden into a cold, stiff mask. He'd expected to find them together. It wasn't a shock.

The shock was that he was so furious about it.

The countess cleared her throat and Alec turned to her in surprise. He'd forgotten she was there. She wasn't looking out the window anymore. She was looking at him, a strange expression on her face. “I'll leave you to it, then, Alec.” She slipped out the door, leaving it open behind her.

What the blazes should he do now? He couldn't just tear across the garden and physically separate them, though every one of his instincts urged him to do something savage, like grab Miss Somerset, throw her over his shoulder, and run off with her. Straight back to Surrey, of course.

No, this situation called for something more subtle. But what?

Just then Alec heard a shuffling noise in the hallway and turned in time to see Lord Shepherdson attempting to mount the stairs.

“Shepherdson!” Alec called, struck with a sudden inspiration. “A word?”

Shepherdson turned, baffled to be summoned by Alec, who did his best to ignore Shepherdson entirely. He shuffled through the door. “Afternoon, Carlisle.” He eyed Alec with suspicion.

“Robyn tells me you and he had quite a time of it last night,” Alec began, resisting the urge to take a step backward. Shepherdson still reeked of spirits. He probably hadn't been to bed at all yet.

“Damn right. Bloody good time, too,” Shepherdson slurred.

“I'm sure. Still, fifty pounds is a lot of money. I'm happy to see you so reconciled to your loss.”

“Damn right it's a lot of money,” Shepherdson agreed
happily. A few seconds passed while he struggled to process the rest of that sentence, but then his face darkened. “What loss?”

Alec pretended to look surprised. “Why, the fifty pounds you lost. Robyn told me you bet him fifty pounds he couldn't best you in a race from the Prickly Thistle back to Bellwood. You lost. You owe Robyn fifty pounds. He says you're cleaned out.”

Shepherdson gaped at him. “The devil you say!”

Alec shrugged as if he couldn't care less. “Ask him yourself.”

“Damn right I will!” Shepherdson swayed a bit on his feet. “Have you seen him?”

Alec rolled his eyes. Shepherdson was about as bright as a snuffed candle. “Why, yes, Shepherdson, I have. In fact, he's right outside there.” Alec pointed in the direction of the garden.

Shepherdson was able to focus just long enough to spot Robyn through the French doors. “Damn right he is!” he squawked, starting forward.

Alec could pinpoint the exact moment when Shepherdson noticed Miss Somerset. “I say, Carlisle.” He elbowed Alec in the ribs. “Who's the tempting armful with Sutherland? Damn fine-looking girl.”

Alec just managed to restrain himself from hauling that elbow up behind Shepherdson's back and throwing him out the doors himself. He smiled coldly. “Better hurry, Shepherdson. It looks like they're leaving.”

Shepherdson lurched through the French doors. “Sutherland!” he bellowed.

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