Authors: Tanya Wilde
An Earl’s Guide to Catch a Lady
Copyright © 2016 by Tanya Wilde.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.
An Earl’s Guide to Catch a Lady
is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are a product of the author’s imagination. Locales and public names are sometimes used for atmospheric purposes. Any resemblance to actual people, living or dead, or to businesses, companies, events, institutions, or locales is completely coincidental.
For Evelyn and Matthew
Pain. There was so much pain and wretchedness it made it impossible to summon even one coherent thought. Torturous. Lifting one heavy lid Evelyn shut it instantly as more blinding pain pierced her skull. Damn wretched head. That much could at least be determined. A soft groan escaped her lips. She remembered nothing except a vague recollection of consuming a rather large amount of… something. Wine perhaps?
A vile taste coated her mouth and her stomach roiled in protest. She wanted nothing more than to be swept into the sweet allure of darkness, but the continued throb prevented sleep from claiming her. It left her no choice but to be brave. One eye popped open, then another. Gah! She squinted as light invaded her vision. After what felt like hours of torment, the blur of brightness disappeared and Evelyn found herself staring at the unfamiliar face of a male. The breath stilled in her lungs. Her eyes widened. The world stopped.
It had to be a dream. Yes, she was still caught in a marvelous stupor. It was the only acceptable reason. Perhaps she should first assure herself that he was a figment of her imagination before she gave into hysterics.
With a feather light touch she brushed her index finger against his nose. Flesh met her fingertip. Her hand snatched back as she let out a tiny screech.
Oh stars! He was as real as her ruination. Her eyes clamped shut and she forced the wave of panic down that threatened to consume her.
No! No! No!
All the hours spent pouring over maps, carefully selecting every country, every city she wanted to explore in her quest to become a world renowned traveler evaporated in the sleeping face of this stranger.
With a sudden movement his leg brushed up against hers and she scrambled out from under the covers, nearly toppling over when her foot got caught in the sheets. In a daze she glanced down at her attire, which compromised only of her chemise. She cringed. It barely covered her legs.
An earth shattering snore drew her gaze back to the stranger. Goodness! She took a moment to inspect his face. No recognition lit in her, yet somehow he seemed familiar. A glance around the room revealed two empty wine bottles, along with her scattered items on the floor. By some small miracle, whatever had transpired hadn’t been in her room.
That might be the only thing that had gone right since Evelyn’s ill-fated journey began to two days ago. First her maid unexpectedly fell ill and had to remain with family, leaving her unchaperoned. Then the carriage had broken down in the rain.
. Hope bloomed as she remembered her footman. He would have sent for the repairs of the carriage. Flee. That was her single course of action. Later she would try to piece together her memories, but first she had to put as much distance as possible between her and this man.
She jumped as he stirred and gave another loud snore, terrified that he would wake up before she left. She snatched up his shirt, having spotted no sign of her dress. It gave her an impression of a large man, much larger than he appeared to be.
With a cautious step she moved toward the bed and studied the sheets. It didn’t appear to be all that rumpled. Her eyes took in every small detail. She released a shaky breath. He had an impressively strong face, which looked almost innocent while he slept. Even his snoring didn’t subtract from his handsomeness. Black hair fell over thick brows and Evelyn had to tamp down the urge to run her fingers through them. She almost regretted that she did not remember the color of his eyes, but if she had to guess, she’d say blue.
His face committed to her memory she turned and edged toward the door. There was a moment of brief anticipation when she heard him stir again.
Please don’t wake up. Please don’t wake up
She crossed her fingers as she peeked over her shoulder, her mouth agape at the sight that greeted her. His face and body had turned away from her so she had a full view of his back and thighs. The covers must have slipped when he’d turned, she mused in wonder. Her mouth went dry as her eyes roamed the length of his magnificent body.
His back was broad and muscled. The word powerful came to mind as her gaze ventured even lower. In fact, nothing about him looked innocent anymore. His thighs were big and strong and... So... So... Hairy?
Evelyn scowled as she inspected his hairy thighs. Was it common for a man to be that hairy? Another loud snore jerked her from her inspection and she marveled at how she’d slept an entire night without being disturbed. It was the first time she had ever heard a man snore and it was rather hypnotic, a low rumbling noise she could grow used to.
Drat! If she had to be ruined, her mind might at least have given her the courtesy of remembering the experience.
Lady Josephine and Lady Belle, her dearest friends, were always prompting her to be more adventurous. How ironic that when she finally found an adventure, it ruined her and she did not remember any of it.
If she left now there might not even be a scandal. Not that it mattered. She had no intention of ever taking a husband. And she would never see this gentleman again.
A crack of light drew her attention to the window. Dawn would be upon them soon. There would still be plenty of time to leave the Inn undetected if she left now. She stole one last glance at the handsome stranger, opened the door and slipped out.
Moments later Evelyn was pacing up and down the Inn’s muddy stables lecturing the stable doors for not knowing her footman’s location. For all she knew he was off arranging for the repairs of their carriage, but not even that knowledge quelled her frustration. He might just as well be snoring the dawn away. She cursed her lack of attention. Where were her horses? Was there another stable perhaps? It was only a matter of time before someone found her lurking about. Country folk were notoriously early risers. If she had any common sense she would go back to her room and hide until her footman sent for her. It would seem, however, that her common sense had evaporated at the sight of a naked man.
Her fingers pinched the bridge of her nose as the headache that had all but disappeared returned with force. She needed to avoid running into the stranger at all cost, but it would be impossible without her carriage. A horrific thought occurred to her. What if the stranger remembered her? What if she had given him her name?
Good morning Mr. Stranger. You might recall me from last night? I was the strumpet in your bed, but I have no memory of our night together.
How awkward it would be to run into him again. She did not trust that she could manage a confrontation without taking to the hills.
A sudden shiver racked down her legs as cold stabbed at her feet. Her slippers weren’t made for wet weather. She sighed in misery, shooting them a disgusted glare. It was then she noticed a note sticking out of a pocket of the stranger’s shirt.
Without thought she snatched the damp note between her fingers and unfolded it. Much of the words were blotched, making it difficult to read. It still might supply a clue to the stranger’s identity. Lifting the note up to her face, Evelyn studied each word with great care.
“The Black Night Inn,” she read in a soft whisper. It was the name of the Inn they were lodging at.
Her fingers ran over a name she could not identify. They stopped however at the words that followed. Slaughter. Some blotched words. Means possible. More blotched words. Execute. More blotched words.
Slaughter whom? Confusion lit her brow. Again she studied the cryptic words but the rain had almost destroyed the entire content of the note. She had an odd sensation of falling as her eyes lifted in horror. Was the stranger here to slaughter some poor soul?
Don’t be ridiculous, she chided herself, remembering his innocent face as he lay in a peaceful slumber.
She could not fathom that her inebriated state would have afforded such a lapse in judgment on her part. The words of the note however, were unmistakable.
Her heart drummed against her chest. Then realization hit her. She had possession of the note, a fact he would soon become aware of once he opened his blue-green-brown eyes. No blue, they would most certainly be blue. Gah! Her hapless adventure that boasted a fatal lapse of memory had just turned into a nightmare. And she was thinking about his eyes! Her teeth captured her lower lip. Oh, she had truly done it now.
Oh Henry. She would have to leave him behind. No need for him to get hacked into pieces as well.
Her mind raced as she studied her surroundings and considered a plan of escape. Leaving on foot would not be wise. She would never outrun the stranger if he gave chase. But then she had no carriage, no means to hire a coach. No, what she needed was a horse, and since she didn’t have one, she would have to steal one.
No, she corrected, borrow one, believing she needed to draw the line somewhere. Her hands settled on her hips as she considered how to proceed. How to go about borrowing a horse?
No answer came.
Drat, who was she fooling? She was becoming a thief. A dreadful one at that.
All those years of learning Latin and French, how to paint and play the piano, one would have thought they would teach young ladies the basic skills for survival. But no, they were delicate petals that should be protected at all times.
She snorted. It wasn’t as though she had been schooled for thievery, but damnation, she hadn’t been schooled for this sort of circumstance either. With a tiny shake of her head she made her way toward the back doors of the stable. The only sounds to be heard were the soft padding of her feet.
There might be a coach waiting to be
, she mused hopefully, pausing upon reaching the doors. One swift glance confirmed she wasn’t alone.
A few feet away stood a giant black horse. It was hard to miss, given its size. At least she thought it was a horse. It looked more like a demon from hell.
“Well I never,” Evelyn muttered under her breath, inspecting the empty courtyard. No groom appeared to be in sight. How odd. Who would leave such a creature unattended? Had she been wrong about her luck? No, luck, would have been a pony, not the monster standing a few feet away. If the horse was any indication of his owner, she would be better off not borrowing it.
Your life is at stake, this is not the time to develop scruples, her inner voice chastised. She had stolen a villain’s shirt that carried a rather damning note. Why stop at a monstrous-looking horse?
Filled with uneasiness she approached the beast and soothed her thoughts with images of her brother, Simon and her friends. They would be devastated if anything were to happen to her.
The elusive groom had yet to make an appearance and Evelyn took that as a sign of luck. Her eyes watchful she moved closer still. The beast did not look all that approachable and worse, it was much larger than it appeared from a distance.
But what did she know about horses? Except that you could ride them. She should have taken more interest in being taught to ride. Perhaps then she would not be hesitating now.
“This is a terrible plan.” Her words of dismay echoed through the courtyard.
The horse watched her with big black eyes as she reached its side. She chuckled as it snorted against her face, smelling her hair.
“That’s not straw you big silly beast,” she murmured and reached out to gently run her hand over its thick neck. This was good, she thought on a nod.
With slow, cautious movements Evelyn took hold of the reins and put her foot on the stirrup when the sight of her bare leg reminded her of her state of undress. She was a
. Now look at her. She was scandalous!
A hint of a smile touched her lips.
If anyone saw her now, she would be ruined. She ought not to have this feeling of brilliancy in the midst of terrifying danger, but she attributed her feelings toward the sense of adventure she was experiencing. Her plan however, was quite simple. Get to Bath and then decide what to do, all the while hoping no one would recognize her.
She shot up a quick prayer as she hoisted herself onto the black demon. Once settled on top she took stock of her surroundings. When there was still no sign of the groom Evelyn let out a breath of relief. That was until she noticed how much of her naked legs were visible.
“Outrageous!” she muttered. But forgot about her nakedness when she saw how high above the ground she sat. She whispered another quick prayer to the heavens and nudged the beast like she’d seen her brother do countless of times. The beast did not move. It seemed to snort at her attempt. To Evelyn’s ears it sounded much more like a smirk. Ghastly animal. She nudged it again, harder this time. It just snorted louder.
“Dratted beast,” she muttered glaring at the back of its head.
What did her brother do when he urged Apollo to go faster? Evelyn nudged harder still, but the horse stood there with no intention of moving. Then, just when Evelyn would have given up hope, two little rats scurried out of the stables in their direction, causing the horse to panic. A blood curdling scream ripped from her throat as the horse reared.
Evelyn’s heart lurched in her chest, but then instinct took over and she wrapped her arms around the thick neck of the horse, holding on for dear life. She felt the legs of the beast hit the ground and without even the slightest hesitation it started forward, racing out of the courtyard, away from the Inn and—mercifully—away from the dangerous man.