WHAT A WICKED EARL WANTS
Doubtless she was the only woman in London who had the temerity to refuse admittance to the Earl of Bellingham.
Laura Davenport, Lady Cheswick, suspected even the most genteel of ladies would flutter their fans and flirt outrageously with him. Since she was a vicar’s daughter, Laura liked to think she was made of sterner stuff. Unfortunately, she’d discovered last night that she was more than a little susceptible to the uncommonly handsome earl.
She would not think about the way he’d let his gaze travel over her body last evening at the ball. Most certainly she would not dwell on the way her skin had heated while he’d perused her with his astonishingly blue eyes. Above all, she would banish the naughty fantasies that had danced in her head while she’d tossed and turned in bed last night.
Even if she wanted to dally with the notorious earl, she would not dare, especially after receiving that scathing letter from her son’s guardian, Montclief. Yesterday, she would not have worried a jot about Justin’s uncle. Today, his letter had left her fearful that he would take Justin away if he heard there was even a hint of a problem.
Laura inhaled and exhaled slowly to steady her nerves. She would write a short letter to Montclief to reassure him that all was well in London. It would be an outrageous lie, for Justin had turned quite rebellious recently. She must impress upon Justin the necessity of steering clear of trouble. If he did not cooperate, she would have no choice but to remove him from London.
Another knock startled her. “Come in,” she said.
“My lady, Lord Bellingham asked me to convey this flask to you,” Reed said. “His lordship said it was imperative that he speak to you.”
Laura rose and frowned. How had he discovered her name and address? The thought bothered her more than a little. She had no idea why he’d sent up a flask of all things, but regardless, it did not signify. “Reed, I assume this is Lord Bellingham’s idea of a jest, but I will not accept his gift nor will I see him.”
“Yes, my lady,” Reed said. “I will inform him that you are not accepting callers.”
“Thank you, Reed.”
After her butler left, Laura released a shaky breath. They had not been formally introduced, and Lady Atherton had made it clear last night that Lord Bellingham was a rake. She most certainly did not wish to make his acquaintance.
Laura walked over to the window. The day was gray and cloudy, promising rain. She fingered the gold, silken ropes and tassels that tied the draperies. The wavy glass distorted the view somewhat, but that shiny black carriage below obviously belonged to the Earl of Bellingham. Any moment now, he would emerge from her town house. All she wanted was to see the back of him retreating.
Footsteps sounded outside the door. Another tap sounded. Certain it was her butler, Laura said, “Come in.” She kept her gaze on the street below, expecting to see Lord Bellingham striding toward his vehicle any moment. After the door shut, she said, “Reed, I hope you sent the earl on his way.”
“He tried, but I’m not easily dissuaded.”
The deep male voice startled her. Laura turned around with a gasp to find the earl standing in her drawing room. She pressed her hand to her fast-beating heart. For some reason he seemed taller than last night. One thing was clear: The man was far too bold. “My lord, are you in the habit of dispensing with the proprieties?”
His mouth curved sideways in a roguish grin. “As a matter of fact, I am.”
Her butler arrived huffing and puffing. “My lady,” he said.
She glanced at Reed. “I will take care of the matter.”
Her butler hesitated, and then he quit the drawing room.
Laura returned her attention to the earl. For a moment, she found herself captivated by his handsome face and artfully disheveled dark hair. In the daylight, his thick black lashes added to the allure of his brilliant blue eyes.
When he arched his brows, Laura recollected her common sense and gave him a withering look. “I made it clear that I am not at home to callers, and yet you persisted, even though we have not been formally introduced.”
“Lady Chesfield, I am honored to make your acquaintance.” He bowed. “Bellingham, at your service.”
Her temper flared. “How did you learn my name and address?”
“I asked Lady Atherton last evening,” he said.
The news physically jolted her. Lady Atherton was her friend. “I find it difficult to believe that Lady Atherton would give out that information.”
His brows drew together in a fierce manner. “She did not wish to tell me, but I insisted.”
“Why?” she said. “We are strangers. You can have no business with me.”
He held up a flask. “Actually, my business is with your stepson.”
She tensed, and within moments, a chill ran down her spine. Oh God, had Justin stolen it? She would not voice the words, because she couldn’t make herself do it. “How do you know him?”
Lord Bellingham shrugged. “I don’t know him, but I have encountered him and his friends loitering on the streets of London more than once. I don’t think they understand the potential dangers of footpads.”
“Thank you, my lord. I will discuss the matter with Justin.”
“Are you aware that he and his friends were drinking in the garden last night?”
“I did not hear or see them.” She had smelled spirits on Justin’s breath, but the earl did not need to know that.
“After you left the garden, they returned to the house,” Bellingham continued. “I followed and saw him push this flask beneath the stairs.”
“My lord, thank you for your concern. Now, if you will give me the flask, I will speak to Justin.”
He arched his brows. “It’s brandy, very fine brandy, in case you are wondering.”
Laura glanced at the sideboard. As soon as she got rid of His Haughtiness, she would check the brandy decanter.
He regarded her with an intense expression. “I don’t make a habit of intervening in other’s affairs, but I heard him lie to you about his whereabouts at the ball. It is clear to me that he’s pulling the wool over your eyes.”
How dare he insinuate that she was too naïve to parent her own stepson? “My lord, he is my son and my responsibility. I appreciate your concern and will speak to him.”
He took a step closer. “How well is that working?”
She drew in a sharp breath. “I owe you no explanations. This is none of your affair. Now please leave.”
He looked away for a moment, and then he returned his attention to her. “Call him to the drawing room. When he realizes that I and others have marked his wayward behavior, he will think twice before lying to you again.”
She had no intention of following his orders. Justin wasn’t even at home, but she would not tell the arrogant earl that. Laura bobbed a curtsy. “Good day, Lord Bellingham,” she said in an obvious dismissal.
He set the flask on a side table. “I beg your pardon for interfering. Despite what you may think, it was meant kindly.”
She recollected Lady Atherton’s advice about him last night. What he wants, he gets. Be sure it’s not you. No, he’d definitely not intervened out of kindness.
Footsteps and voices sounded outside the drawing room. “Sir, allow me to inform her ladyship that you have come to call,” Reed said.
“I do not require an announcement and will see her now.”
Laura gasped as she recognized the voice. She snatched the flask and hid it behind one of the rolled sofa cushions.
“What the devil?” Bellingham said.
She entreated him with her eyes. “It is Montclief, Justin’s guardian. Please, say nothing of Justin to him,” she said in a low tone.
“Why?” he said. “If he is the guardian—”
“Please,” she said, aware that her voice shook. “There is no time to explain. I will do anything you ask, but I beg you not to betray me.”
He arched his brows. “Anything?”
“Yes, anything,” she said, worrying her hands.
He snared her with his blue eyes. “Be careful what you promise.”