Anna Bradley presents the first novel in the Sutherland Scandals series, a tantalizing Regency romance filled with the most elegant society—and the most forbidden desires...
England, 1811. Delia Somerset despises the privileged ton, but her young sister, Lily, is desperate to escape their family’s scandalous past and join high society. Unwilling to upset her sister, Delia reluctantly agrees to attend a party at the Sutherland estate—and avoid the gossip at all costs.
Alec Sutherland is known as a hot-headed scoundrel, but nothing gets a rise out of him as much as the news that his brother desires Delia’s hand in marriage. She is, after all, the daughter of the London belle who soiled their family name. He’s determined to ruin her reputation as well, in the most delicious way possible. It’s only a matter of time before he can woo her with his irresistible advances.
As Delia devilishly plays along in Alec’s game, determined to prove the joke is on him, they inch ever closer to repeating history. And in this game of seductive glances, scandalous whispers, and old debts, the outcome might be much more than either of them anticipated...
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Anna Bradley is the author of the Sutherland Scandals novels, including A Season of Ruin and A Wicked Way to Win an Earl. She lives with her husband and two children in Portland, Oregon.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Special Excerpt from A Season of Ruin
“Hurry, Caroline! Oh, please do hurry!” Millicent Chase cast an uneasy look over her shoulder as she rushed down the empty corridor.
Caroline Swan placed a firm hand on Millicent’s arm to keep her from breaking into a run. “Millie! Someone will notice if we dash about. They won’t be looking for you. Not yet.”
Click. Click. Click. The heels of Millicent’s elegant silver slippers made a distinct patter on the marble floors. Despite Caroline’s warning, the patter only quickened. Millicent lowered the hood of her black velvet cloak as she hurried down the hallway. It was an unusually deep one, and the luxurious black jet beadwork sewn lavishly around the hood’s edges glittered even in the dim light of the corridor.
The young ladies ducked into a shallow alcove just off the main passage. It was a servant’s passageway, but as it didn’t lead directly from the kitchens to the ballroom, it would be deserted tonight. Better yet, it let out right into the dark mews at the back of the town house.
“Just here, Caroline.” Millicent pulled her friend into the alcove and turned to face her, glancing over Caroline’s shoulder to make sure they hadn’t been followed. She put her hands up to her flushed cheeks. “Goodness, I’m nervous!” She reached for the black mask that hid her face, which was sewn with some of the same jet beads that adorned the hood. Her fingers shook.
Caroline took Millicent’s hands gently in her own and lowered them to her sides. “Let me.” She removed the mask and unbuttoned Millicent’s cloak. Millicent stood as docile as a child as Caroline freed her from the enveloping garment.
“Millie, I . . .” Caroline hesitated, the cloak clutched in her hands. “We may not speak for some time, and I . . .”
Millicent’s eyes misted with tears. She reached down and grasped Caroline’s cold fingers. “You’re my dearest friend, Caroline, and I won’t ever forget what you’ve done for me tonight. I’ll miss you terribly. But surely we’ll see each other again.” Her voice rose hopefully. “The ton has a short memory for scandal.”
But a long memory for insult and social humiliation.
Caroline didn’t say it. There wasn’t any point. Millicent had made up her mind, and things had gone too far for her to turn back now. There would be consequences for her actions tonight. Millicent knew it. She’d accepted it. Caroline studied her friend’s face and smiled. She saw no regret in Millie’s dark, famously blue eyes.
Caroline squeezed the slim fingers that clutched her own and smiled. “Here, give me the mask and help me tie it.”
Millicent handed her the mask and helped Caroline tie the silken cord at the back; then she held out the cloak and Caroline slipped her arms into the voluminous folds. The black velvet billowed around her, easily concealing her gown.
Millicent arranged the hood over her friend’s fair hair, then stood back and studied the effect. The girls were a similar size, both of them tall and slim. The hood came down low over Caroline’s face and completely disguised her hair. The domino mask didn’t hide the hazel eyes that could never be mistaken for Millicent’s blue ones, but it didn’t matter. There was no one to notice.
Millicent grasped Caroline’s shoulders. “It will do very well. Do the best you can not to draw attention to yourself and no one will be the wiser for at least several hours.”
“What about Lord Carlisle?” Caroline asked, suddenly nervous. “What shall I do if he engages me in conversation? Won’t he notice if we dance together?”
Millicent shook her head, but she didn’t answer, and after a moment Caroline nodded. Lord Carlisle wouldn’t attempt to engage his fiancée in conversation. He wouldn’t look into her eyes and wonder why they were no longer blue. He wouldn’t look into her eyes at all.
Caroline straightened her shoulders and smiled. “Well,” she said, making a valiant attempt at merriment. “I’m the luckiest girl at the ball. Every young lady here wishes she were Millicent Chase.”
But Millicent didn’t smile. Instead, her mouth twisted bitterly. For the past few months she’d been the most sought-after young lady in London. Every debutante dreamed of being the belle of her season, but Caroline knew they hadn’t been two weeks into the season before Millicent felt like a fox cornered by hounds.
“That will be true for approximately three more hours. When the truth is revealed, Caroline . . .” Millicent began, but then she stopped, as if she weren’t sure what to say.
But Caroline was under no illusions about her part in the drama that would unfold at midnight. One didn’t betray Hart Sutherland on a whim. Not under any circumstances. Still, she brushed Millicent’s concern aside with a wave of her hand. “I’ll manage it, Millie. Please be careful yourself. But I’m not too worried for you, for I know Captain Somerset appreciates the value of his burden.”
Millicent pressed her damp cheek against Caroline’s. “Good-bye.” The click of her slippers echoed in the dim hallway as she disappeared around the corner.
Caroline’s heart gave a painful squeeze. Tonight would live forever in the memory of Millicent’s family and friends as the night she gave up everything for the mad adventure of a lifetime.
* * *
Lady Hadresham gazed down at the ballroom from her vantage point on the balcony, a satisfied smile on her face. Mrs. Gisborne’s peacock plumes wilted in the heat. Ladies young and old clutched their glasses of champagne as though a drought had descended upon London. They fluttered their fans to and fro in a fruitless effort to cool their cheeks and dry their faces. Couples twirled gingerly on the dance floor, aware one missed step would send them all atilt and they’d scatter like a line of dominoes tweaked by a careless finger.
As usual, it was an intolerable crush. No one wanted to miss Lord and Lady Hadresham’s annual masque ball. It was the ton’s last chance to strut and preen before they scurried off to their country houses, rats abandoning the sinking ship that was London after the season ended.
Behind gloved hands and painted silk fans the gossip flowed steadily, buoyed along by wave after wave of French champagne. Lips to ear. Lips to ear.
That gown! Whatever made her decide to wear that shade of green with her sallow complexion?
It curled and drifted, clinging to the smoke that lingered over the billiards table:
You might have a chance with her, old boy, for I hear Lord Weymouth is tiring of her . . .
It was delivered in whispers and snickers by the debutantes and traded like currency at the card tables:
Another season and still no offer for poor Miss Chatsworth. My dear, this is her sixth season! How sad . . .
Lady Hadresham’s eyes moved over the crush of people and the smile at the corners of her pretty mouth grew ever more complacent.
The Chase family was here. They stood near the terrace with Anne Sutherland, Lady Carlisle, and her eldest son, Hart, now Earl of Carlisle. Even masked, they were unmistakable. They weren’t inconvenienced by the crush of people. The cool air coming through the door wafted over them as if on command. It was without a doubt the one comfortable spot in the entire ballroom, but no one questioned their right to it. They were the Chases and the Sutherlands, after all. It was as it should be.
The engagement of the season would be announced at midnight. At the moment of unmasking, Lady Hadresham would be immortalized as London’s premier hostess.
* * *
The light from the ballroom chandeliers drifted out onto the stairs leading up to Lord and Lady Hadresham’s town house, but it was no match for the dense London fog. The night swallowed the light a few steps from the doorway. Had anyone been watching the mews, they would have caught only a glimpse of a young lady, hatless and without a cloak, before she melted into the shadows.
Like the young lady, the carriage was unobtrusive. Black, with no crest. It could have been any carriage on any street in London. As the young lady approached, a tall silhouette leapt from the open door and wrapped a cloak tenderly about her shoulders. The two figures melted together until no light or shadow was visible between them.
As one, they ascended the carriage. The door closed with a quiet click, and the driver brought the ribbons down over the horses’ backs.
The spring mud seeped through the thin soles of her leather walking boots and began to creep into her stockings. This was no ordinary mud. Before long it would be tickling her garters.
“Blast it,” Delia muttered halfheartedly. She’d known it was a mistake to come here. A mudslide would certainly prove her right, wouldn’t it? There was a sort of grim satisfaction in being right, though at the moment she’d settle for being dry. And clean. And home, instead of stranded on a deserted road in Kent, with the sky turning dark over her head, at grave risk of being buried in a freak mudslide.
At the very least she should have listened to her sister Lily and stayed with the carriage, but no, she’d insisted on finding help, and now here she was in an awful predicament—
Delia stopped suddenly, one foot in a puddle. Was that . . . Yes! She crossed her fingers and sent a quick prayer up to heaven the noise she’d just heard was not a bear or some other wild animal.
Were there bears in Kent?
Delia strained to hear, and waited. No, it wasn’t a bear. That was, unless the bears in this part of England were prone to high-pitched giggling. She pulled at her foot with some force to dislodge it from the puddle. The sound was coming from farther up the road, around the other side of a bend.
She staggered forward as quickly as her sopping skirts would allow. It was odd to hear giggling on a lonely road at dusk, but she was in no position to be choosy. All she wished for in the world was one single person who could help her find a conveyance. One human being. Was that too much to ask? Anyone would do. Anyone at all.
She trudged around the bend, dragging her hems.
Oh, dear. One did need to be careful what one wished for.
She squinted into the dusk, trying to make sense of the two shapes leaning against a tree. It was a woman, and she was . . . The squint turned into wide-eyed shock. Delia froze, as if the mud at her feet had become quicksand and she was sunk up to her neck in it.
It was a woman, indeed, and she wasn’t alone. She was engaged. With a man. A very large man. He was at least a head taller than his companion. If the woman hadn’t been giggling, Delia would have missed her entirely, hidden as she was by a pair of impossibly wide shoulders. The man had discarded his coat, which hung carelessly over a wet tree branch. Without it, his white shirt was just visible in the dusk, and under it what appeared to Delia to be miles of muscled arm and long, sinewy back.
Well, he wouldn’t need his coat, would he? Not for what he was doing. It would only get in the way. For instance, it might prove difficult for him to trap the woman against the tree. His arms were stretched on either side of her and his palms rested on the trunk beside her head. Delia swallowed. If he wasn’t right on top of her like that, his lips might not be able to reach her throat and neck so easily. And his hands . . .
Delia held her breath as one of the man’s hands dropped away from the tree and slipped inside the gaping neckline of the woman’s dress to caress her breast.
A hot flush began deep in the pit of Delia’s belly. She looked behind her, then back at the scene in front of her, her eyes darting wildly. Was it too late to turn back the way she’d come? She’d decided in favor of the mudslide and the bears, after all. But her feet refused to move. She was rooted to the spot, unable to tear her eyes away from this man with his muscular back and his bold, seeking hand.
“Alec! Stop that!” The woman let out a little squeal and slapped playfully at the man’s hand.
Oh, thank God. Delia breathed a silent sigh of relief. This reckless young woman was coming to her senses at last. Any moment now she’d push the man away.
Any moment now.
But then the man gave a low chuckle and murmured something in the woman’s ear. Delia watched, appalled, as the woman giggled again and snaked her arms around the man’s lean hips to pull him tighter against her. Once he was there, the woman sighed. And oh, it was such a sigh! Delia had never heard one like it before, and it made her ears burn with embarrassment.
And he was . . . Oh no! One large hand slipped down to fumble at the fall of his breeches while the other caught a handful of the woman’s skirts and began to raise them up, up, and higher still . . .
Delia clapped her hand over her mouth but some noise must have escaped, some cry of distress or outrage, because suddenly the man’s back stiffened. The woman peered over his shoulder, saw Delia, and with a quick, practiced tug, she freed her skirts from the man’s grip, batted them down, jerked her neckline up, and disappeared around the side of the tree. Within seconds it was as if she’d never been there at all.
Delia blinked. Well, that was over quickly, wasn’t it? Now that it was, she had two choices. She could ask the man for help, or she could flee back to Lily and the safety of the carriage and pretend she’d never been here, either.
Then again . . . she’d never seen a real debauchery before. Since there was no longer any danger of this one coming to its final embarrassing conclusion, Delia found she was curious.
What would he do now?
She watched, rapt, but for a long time he didn’t do anything. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t speak. He just stood there, inhaling deeply, the muscles of his back rippling with each breath. In. Out. In. Out. He tipped his head back and for several minutes he concentrated on the tree branches swaying above him.
She was just about to conclude this was the dullest debauchery ever when he let out a frustrated groan, grabbed his coat from the branch, and turned to face her.
“Who the devil are you?”
Delia’s mouth dropped open and she stumbled backward a few steps, her curi...
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