An Earl’s Guide to Catch a Lady
Evelyn cursed the beast when it showed no sign of slowing. Her jarring body protested in pain and she wondered miserably if the horse was racing her straight into Hell. The flames of which sound much more appealing than this torture, she thought bitterly.
This was, without a doubt, the second worst day of her life. The worst being the night she overheard Lord Pompous engage in a wager to bed and wed her—hence her reason for journeying to Bath so early in the season. Yes, the blame rested squarely on Lord Harry’s shoulders.
Evelyn remembered with painstaking clarity why she’d never learned to ride these beasts. She did not care for the sensation, even decided she would steer clear of the Colonies in her travels.
“I’m going to die,” she muttered unsteadily, clinging harder to the animal.
Somehow, above the clatter of hooves, a bellowing voice reached her ears. She shut her eyes in dread. Perhaps if she ignored the person they would disappear, but Evelyn knew better. Someone must have witnessed her appropriation of the horse. It would have been painfully clear that she had no clue as to what she was doing. Perhaps this person would be kind enough to escort her to Bath? Instinct, on the other hand, told her that the world didn’t work that way. It would be either the owner of the beast or someone he’d ordered to retrieve it, along with the thief. Evelyn resisted the urge to peek at her pursuer and was wholly unprepared for the deafening blow that suddenly sounded through the air, causing birds to scatter and the horse to rear.
Evelyn would forever remember it as the most terrifying moment of her life. As the horse reared, her resolve faltered; she glanced over her shoulder at the pursuer. She only had time to see that his horse had reared too before her hold on her own steed slipped.
Her cry of alarm echoed through the air as she tried, but failed, to regain her grip, hitting the ground with a painful thud. She struggled to catch her breath as pain shot through her head. Blackness dimmed her vision. Hooves galloped away from her. Why that should be important she couldn’t recall, but it was.
Her head rolled to the side and she tried to focus her gaze on the other rider to no avail. A curse reached her ears, followed by a thud as he hit the ground. A low whimper passed her lips as her eyes drifted closed. Footsteps rushed toward her. She sensed her pursuer kneeling beside her.
Was it the stranger?
She did not have enough strength to be terrified. Just as well, Evelyn thought. If she’d been able to move she would have curled into a ball and died. The pounding in her head worsened, drowning out all thoughts and sounds. Her eyes fluttered open and at the same time, a furious face loomed over her. Concern lit in his eyes even as a vein ticked on his forehead. His tempting mouth opened and closed, but no sound reached her ears. Her eyes drifted closed again. Perhaps he would leave her to suffer in peace.
A memory teased her mind. A familiar face… But it was lost before Evelyn could grab hold of it. Darkness beckoned her to its depth, inviting her to surrender to its pull. She fought against it. It felt too important to connect the face with the memory.
A shiver of recognition passed through her, accompanied by relief. She remembered. The stranger. Another whimper escaped her. Not from the pain, but growing horror that her plan had failed. Was this then, to be her end? It was fine. She had no regrets, no unfinished business or words left unsaid. Her family and friends knew she loved them.
She supposed as deaths went this would be better than most; a quick death. Having accepted her fate Evelyn finally surrendered to the darkness, relieved when it enfolded her in its silky caress and everything turned to black.
Glaring down at the now unconscious woman who lay sprawled on the muddy ground like a pagan sacrifice, Matthew cursed her foolishness. He’d lost ten years of his life when she fell, seconds before his own cursed horse threw him into the mud. Normally he would have no difficulty controlling a horse in hairy situations, but the sound of Evelyn’s cry and the sight of her hitting the ground threw him.
Now mud clung to him and the horses had bolted. He shook his head. Infuriating woman. What the hell caused such madness? Surely it had not been the sight of his face? Had she taken one look at him and she made for the hills?
With a light touch, he ran his finger over her chin and anger gave way to concern when he noticed her pallor.
“Damn foolish woman,” he muttered, his voice laced with worry as he reached out to tuck a muddy curl behind her ear.
She didn’t respond.
“Evelyn,” he tried again.
Still, she did not respond. Matthew cursed. He’d have to get her back to the Inn even if he carried her all the way. A quick study of their surroundings confirmed the horses were nowhere in sight. He would love nothing more than to throttle the bastard responsible for that shot. If not for the valuable time wasted to dress, he would have caught up with her sooner.
In quick movements he inspected her small frame, searching for injuries, satisfied when he found none except a small bump at the back of her head. Besides the throbbing in her head she’d have when she regained consciousness, she would live. He let out a breath of relief. This odd woman awakened many unwelcome emotions from deep within him, and he wasn’t happy about it. Not one bit.
“Wake up Evelyn,” he tried once again with more force than he intended. Why won’t she wake up? With a scowl, he ran his fingers over where the bump had formed. Could it be more severe than he first thought? It didn’t sit well with him. She was quite small, and the fall had been hard. Would she be able to walk the distance back to the Inn? He knew instinctively she would never allow him to carry her. She would walk the distance even if it killed her. Stubborn chit.
A wave of unease drew his attention away from her and to their surroundings. He found nothing out of place, yet the impression they were being watched did not fade. His focus once more on Evelyn he pressed his lips against her ear and whispered, “Wake up sweetheart.”
Evelyn became aware of the stranger urging her to wake up. It seemed odd that he would whisper in her ear with such soft concern. It certainly made no sense to her addled mind. Why would he show her any concern? Were evil villains even capable of such emotion? Perhaps she might be a tad theatrical in her line of thoughts, she reflected, but an evil villain did sound better than a murderer.
She certainly did not imagine them to be handsome. Oh, stop it, Evelyn! He’s dangerous and much stronger. She’d do well to be cautious. Now that her wits had returned she saw the truth of it. The villain sweeps in, pretends to be prince charming all the while planning to use the heroine against the hero. Only there was no hero… just the distinct possibility she’d been wrong. In which case, her wits had failed her…
Even so, the devil had to be faced. Raising her lids ever so slowly she peered through her lashes. The throbbing in her head subsided somewhat as her eyes adjusted to the light. Violet eyes met green ones. The green ones blinked as if they couldn’t grasp that the violet ones had opened. Was that relief in his eyes? Too quickly his expression turned dark and his mouth formed a grim line. Gone was the concerned male, replaced by a strong, hard and very angry one.
“Sylvester could have killed you!” He yelled at her.
Her mouth formed a silent O. Sylvester? Had it been his horse? Of course, she mused grimly, resisting the urge to stick out her tongue. Then his words sank into her slow-witted mind. He’s angry because she could have been killed? How very… unexpected.
“Your powers of deduction are quite marvelous,” she replied as if he were daft, “though I beg to differ on the stealing part.”
She did not feel the need to explain her actions. He owed her an explanation since he apparently took advantage of her inebriated state.
Matthew blinked. Surely he had not heard her correctly? When she’d opened her eyes, his relief had been like a shock to his heart. Anger, however, swiftly replaced any concern he may have felt when the direness of her actions slammed into him, leaving him unsettled and shaken. He hadn’t meant to snap at her but by saints! She tried his temper!
“You borrowed my horse? Madam, is that all you have to say on the matter?” he asked flatly. A hint of menace entered his eyes, satisfied when he saw hers widen in alarm.
Good. She needed to be alarmed. He pushed away from her, needing to put some distance between them before he said something he would regret later. She was an oddity, and he was determined to unearth all her secrets.
Evelyn managed to get to her feet without so much as a flinch. A quick stock of their surroundings showed no horses and thunder clouds looming overhead. She narrowed her eyes at the man standing a few feet away. He stood with his back to her, clear signs of anger visible in his tense form. Had she overreacted in her presumptions?
She pinched the bridge of her nose. He would want answers. The truth, she reflected glumly, would get her locked up in Bedlam.
One step backward, two steps, pause, three steps, four steps—she slowly edged away from him.
He turned then, his hawkish eyes amused as he noted her retreat, the hard line of his mouth softening.
When he only lifted a dark brow Evelyn blurted, “I suspect I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
She gave a curt nod. “I thought you were going to hack me into pieces.”
His jaw slackened. After a startled moment, his eyes lowered which brought him notice her naked legs. She shifted uncomfortably under his regard. She’d completely forgotten about her state of undress!
Matthew hadn’t noticed, having been distracted by his anger and concern. He noticed now. Desire slammed into him with such a force it was all he could do not to— Wait, hack her to pieces?
Why the hell would she assume that? Did he look like a ruffian bent on dragging innocent women to his dungeon with a butcher’s knife? What in the blazes was wrong with this woman? Matthew’s heart sank as thoughts of insanity filled his mind. Had she hit her head harder than he surmised, or escaped from Bedlam?
He all but laughed at the irony. The first woman who’d caught his attention in six years, that made him feel something rather than nothing, and she was as mad as a March hare. Fate certainly had a sense of humor.
“What the devil are you talking about? Why would I hurt you?” he snapped and then lifted his hands to stop her from answering. “Do not answer that. First, I want to know why you stole my horse.” His gaze ran over her in accusation. “In my stolen shirt, no less.”
Evelyn swallowed. “I uh…”
She hesitated, how to explain her actions? “I did not know that it was your horse,” she answered truthfully. “As to the why, I found the note in your pocket.”
His eyes dropped to where she removed the note and held it out to him, but he made no move to take it.
“You concluded I’d kill you after reading a note?”
Her delicate chin lifted in defense at his incredulous tone. He stared at her for a single heartbeat before he burst out in laughter.
This, Evelyn thought, was exactly the reason her brother wanted her to marry; to save her from her own imagination. She certainly wouldn’t deny that her imagination may, at times, get the better of her. One glance at this man proved this to be one of those times.
When he hunched on one knee, laughter racking his body, Evelyn had had enough. Ignoring years of pedigree and lessons drummed into her, she marched over to where he was hunched over, and kicked him, her foot connecting with his shoulder. Insufferable goat. She turned on her heel.
“What the hell was that for?” he shouted after her, but she ignored him. With one goal in mind—get back to the Inn, find her footman and leave—she stomped off.
Laughter erupted from his chest. The impertinent witch actually had the gall to kick him. His lips twitched as he tracked her movements, seizing the opportunity to admire her backside. She looked glorious with her hair falling to her waist, the sway of her hips, and the skin of her bare legs. A foul curse echoed through the air. Once again he had been distracted by his emotions and had completely forgotten about her attire.
“Damnation woman!” he bellowed. “You are practically naked! Ruffians could’ve accosted and manhandled you!”
She shot him a glare over her shoulder. “Look around sir,” she said with a wide gesture of her hands, “the only ruffian here, is you.”
Of all the infuriating women in the world, he had to find her. Closing the distance between them in a few strides, he grabbed her by the arm and dragged her toward the field, ignoring her enraged gasp.
His grip tightened. “We need to get off the road before someone sees you,” he growled.
She twisted out of his hold and whirled to impart on him a withering stare. “Why?” she snapped. “So you can manhandle me in the field where no one will see us?”
Matthew blinked at the vehemence in her tone and almost laughed again. He could not help the broad smile that formed on his face. By saints! She had a temper that matched her fiery imagination. “No, my little spitfire, I only considered your reputation. Or do you want everyone to gaze upon those lovely legs of yours?”
Evelyn failed to see the humor. But she hated to admit that he had a point. If she’d not been so preoccupied with getting away from him she might’ve considered the fact.
He must think her a hoyden. She would have thought it. The only course of action now was to get back to the Inn without being seen. Then she would put this entire incident behind her.
“You are right, of course,” she muttered reluctantly, averting her gaze.
Strong fingers gently lifted her chin to meet his gaze. “I will not harm you, you have my word.”
That wasn’t the problem, Evelyn speculated darkly as she followed him into the field. He was the problem. Him. With his hypnotic green eyes and gentle touch. And he knew her name whereas she could not remember his. It was a disadvantage that she did not care for. Yet still, she followed without complaint.
Her mood improved when she was afforded the perfect opportunity to stare at his magnificent backside—and that she did care for. Even dirty and bedraggled he walked with an air of authority; a superiority and arrogance that no mere man possessed. He walked as though he not only owned the world but as though he had a right to own it. It was a walk Evelyn recognized the walk of a man with superior birth.
Yet she did not recognize him. Of course, she wasn’t familiar with every aristocrat in England, but if he frequented London, he would’ve known her true identity and that of her family. Her description along with her first name alone, if asked to the right person, would unmask her. If her suspicions were correct, he might be duty-bound to do the right thing. That would never do! He did not strike Evelyn as a man that would allow her to indulge in her travels.
“Oh bother,” Evelyn muttered under her breath.
Matthew glanced over his shoulder, his brows pulled together. He smiled when a beautiful shade of red stained her cheeks. So she wasn’t as unaffected as she would have him believe. The thought pleased him. What a mystery she remained.
“Are you traveling alone?” he asked offhandedly.
Her startled gaze flew to his. “Yes. I uh, mean no,” she recovered, scolding herself for the slip. “I am traveling with a chaperon,” she continued, omitting that her chaperon was her footman, even though she had been more than willing to leave him behind—for his own safety of course.
“Where is your ladies maid?”
A big reddish cat slinking through the grass caught her attention. “Oh uh, she became sick on our journey so I sent her home,” Evelyn replied, distracted by the cat. It seemed to entertained itself with something hairy, a mouse perhaps?
Too late Evelyn realized her mistake. She should not have parted with that information, however, insignificant it appeared. Eyes narrowed on the back of his head. What was this man about? He seemed to be planning something, she was sure of it, and it no doubt involved her. Heaven forbid he should insist upon escorting her to her destination. That would not do at all.
“May I ask a question?” she asked, redirecting the topic of conversation.
He quirked a brow, curious. “You may.”
“Why is it I happened to wake up with a man in my bed?”
The scoundrel chuckled. “I believe you mean my bed. You do not remember then?”
“No,” she muttered grudgingly. “I’ve no memories of meeting you at all.”
“I should blister your behind. Had it been any man other than me, you could have found yourself released of your virtue.”
“I am aware sir, and I will certainly never do so again,” Evelyn replied, sarcasm laced heavy in her voice.
“And I am to accept your word?”
She snorted. “It is of little consequence whether you accept my word or not.”
“You were convinced I was a dream,” he teased.
She came up short, glaring at his back. “I most certainly did not!”
That earned her another chuckle.
“You most certainly did,” he reassured her.
Her humiliation was now complete. “Then I owe you an apology sir… Not only did my imagination run wild, but I overindulged, behaved like a trollop and stole your horse.”
Matthew paused upon hearing the defeated note in her voice. She sounded tired and dejected. He much preferred the angry Evelyn to the defeated Evelyn. “Please, call me Matthew. The time for formalities has passed, do you not agree?”
Matthew. The name suited him, she mused on a wistful note, thankful that he’d offered it without her having to ask. She also had no intention of forgoing that particular formality. It kept him at the desired distance. “Thank you for accepting my apology.”
He turned then, his eyes locking with hers. “No need for apologies. All has been forgiven,” he said, then added with a sly smile, “The moment you stomped away so marvelously.”
His ancient green eyes held her spellbound and drew her in… Into what she didn’t know, “I do not stomp,” she whispered, barely audible, almost indignantly, still captured by his gaze.
Matthew did not think, only reacted, covering her lips with his in a fervent kiss. She stiffened in his embrace and he let his tongue slide over her lower lip, coaxing a gasp from her. He took advantage of her parted lips and plunged his tongue into her mouth, drawing her closer to him.
A soft moan escaped her the same time she melted against his chest. Damn, he wanted her. She was driving him mad with desire. How long since he’d held a woman in his arms? Not since Charlotte, six years ago.
The force of his desire staggered him. But he did not dare. Women weren’t creatures to be trusted, no matter how sweet and innocent they appeared. He would do what he had done six years ago. He would walk away and never look back.
He broke the kiss and muttered in a harsh breath, “We should get back before you freeze to death.”
“Y-Yes of course,” Evelyn stammered between breaths as she watched him march away. She was not at all certain what had just happened. One moment he’d kissed her passionately and the next he’d pushed her away like she had some sort of illness. It should not bother her. She had no business kissing him, especially not since she sensed he’d be nothing but trouble. Moving to follow him, she shivered as coldness stabbed at her legs.
“I can’t imagine what compelled you to steal my horse without wearing the proper attire.” She heard him mutter darkly.
Her delicately arched brows rose mockingly. “Are you talking to the trees now?”
He shot her a glare. “You did not escape from Bedlam, did you?”
Evelyn shrugged, not insulted by the question. “You will never know.”
He snorted. “Have it your way, sweetheart. But I would’ve expected a little more gratitude toward the man who saved your life. Can you even grasp what might’ve happened if any other man came across you in your present,” he gave her a once over, “state? A lesser man may have been overwhelmed with admiration and lust and had his wicked way with you.”
But the idea of him having his wicked way with her was a surprisingly appealing one, yet he seemed entirely unaffected by their impromptu kiss. Evelyn ran her gaze over his masculine form, taking in his broad shoulders, narrow hips, long muscular legs and then lastly, his buttocks. She wondered what he would do if she pinched them.
“Wicked way indeed,” she murmured. Her head started to throb again.
“I beg your pardon?” he shot her a look of complete surprise.
Had she said that out loud?
“Nothing,” she replied awkwardly under his penetrating gaze.
“Do you perhaps want me to have my wicked way with you, Evelyn?” His voice hoarse and throaty, the force of it sent little prickles down her spine.
“Don’t be ridiculous. I hardly know you,” she replied with false indignation, standing firm even while her legs felt unsteady. She needed to get rid of him, not encourage him.
“Don’t play games with me, sweetheart.” There was a hint of warning in his voice. He stepped closer until he was so close, she could feel his breath on her cheeks.
“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“So you are not using my attraction toward you as a means to manipulate me?”
Evelyn blinked at his accusation, confused. Manipulation? Attraction?
“Now I know you cannot be serious,” she answered with a laugh. “I’m no beauty nor do men find me attractive. Which begs the question, what games are you playing?”
Matthew stared at her in disbelief. Not attractive? He saw the confusion in her eyes, saw curiosity. It appeared she truly believed she was no beauty.
“I don’t bother with games. I find you very attractive.”
To prove his point his lips found hers again in a hard and unrelenting kiss, his arms pulling her into his embrace, crushing her against his chest. Just as quickly he let her go, and once again turned to walk away, leaving Evelyn to stare at his back, perplexed.
Her temper sparked. Not playing games was he? Well, there would be no more games played. He could be sure of that.
“Gentleman my backside,” she muttered, moving to follow his lead.
Matthew chuckled. “You have a biting tongue, Evelyn. Be careful that it does not get you into trouble one day.”
“I’m merely commenting on the fact that you are not very gentleman like.”
“How very astute you are, madam. But then,” he paused for effect, “I have been in the company of a hoyden these past few hours.”
Evelyn wanted nothing more than to kick him again, but she managed to control the impulse. Still, she was a bit breathless when she said, “You, sir, are a rake.”
“I have never been a rake, sweetheart, but the devil in me likes to play with little angels like you.”
What was this? Rogue code? “I’m hardly an angel.”
Her thoughts slipped back to the events of earlier. No, she was hardly an angel.
“You are an angelic creature, my dear.” He told her, his voice low and compelling. “You even taste like heaven.”
Her cheeks reddened. She was way out of her depth and dreadful at flirtation. Then again, it hardly mattered, she decided. Before this day was over she would be gone, and she would never see him again.
“Well, you are the first devil I’ve ever had the misfortune to meet.”
“I’m sure I won’t be your last,” he replied darkly.
Evelyn considered his statement. It was a casual assertion, but his tone made no pretense at it being a simple one.
“So, where are you traveling to?” she asked, guiding the subject back to a safer topic. She quickened her pace so that she could walk by his side.
“The lady is curious now, is she?” His dark eyes suddenly glinted with mischief as he glanced down at her.
His finger came up to brush her cheek, and she tried to ignore the pleasant sensations stirring in her blood. She pressed on, “Not to mention good manners.”
“It appears that I have lost my manners.”
Evelyn snorted. “We should pick up the pace, lest we want to be soaked,” she murmured, casting a worried glance at the darkened sky.
She was suddenly anxious to get away from him and the feelings he provoked in her. He could keep his secrets.
“Whatever the lady wishes.”
The Inn came into view the same time a droplet hit the point of Matthew’s nose. He glanced at Evelyn, noting her pensive expression. She intended to make a run for it. He knew it as certain as he knew the grass was green. She was a lady, of that he had no doubt. Her mention of a footman and maid confirmed it. Though he had suspected it from the first moment he met her. And yet she traveled alone. No gentleman worth his salt would let her continue on her journey without a proper escort. Not that he claimed to be a gentleman worth his salt, but Evelyn was different.
“Is it a secret then, your destination?” He heard her ask him.
“You honestly cannot remember anything from the previous evening?” He sounded amused.
“I— Ah, well no, as I have said.”
“I have business to see to.”
Her nose wrinkled in annoyance. That was it? What a vexing, vague man.
“Does your business include butchering or some other nefarious deed?”
Evelyn tamped down her irritation. His moods were quite disconcerting. One moment he exuded charm, friendliness and passion and the next moment he was distant, cold and brooding. Also, he was too handsome for his own good.
“Did I spill my deepest, darkest secrets?” she asked in an attempt to get some answers.
He only snorted.
The man could try a saint. It vexed her to no end that he gave nothing of himself away. Evelyn decided to ignore him and his tiring moods. Instead, she focused on her aches and pains, mentally counting all the places her body hurt.
He cast a sidelong glance in her direction, taking in her pallor, and slowed his pace until she strolled once more beside him. “You’re awfully quiet,” he remarked after a moment, breaking through her thoughts. “You’re not planning to leave without saying goodbye?”
Evelyn made a face behind him. He hadn’t even broken stride.
“If only my body would allow me,” she muttered, her voice laced with sarcasm. She was, however, intending to do just that.
The thought left an odd feeling in the center of her heart.
Read more here!