Anna Bradley is an award-winning author with a weakness for alpha heroes and happily-ever-afters. Anna’s debut novel, “A Wicked Way to Win an Earl” was named RT’s 2015 “Best First Historical,” and one of Booklist’s Top 10 Romance Debuts for that year. Anna’s current series, the sassy, steamy Sutherland Scandals features not-so-gentlemanly heroes, and heroines who know how to tame them. History is sexier than you think, Gentle Reader!
Twelfth Night with the Earl
If home is where the heart is, and my heart belongs to you . . .
My home is wherever you are.
Happy Holidays to Dani’s Rambling Chick readers! I’m sure you all were good this year, and every good reader deserves some wicked holiday fun. My theme is A Scandalous Frolic in the Kitchens, or, “You did what to the Christmas pudding?” I hope you enjoy this scene from my regency Christmas novella, “Twelfth Night with the Earl,” releasing in November of 2017.
Theodosia Sheridan has always been a green-eyed hellion, but Alistair Wroth never imagined she’d go as far as to steal his house! But when he returns to Cleves Court after a 12-year absence, he finds the neglected pile of rocks overflowing with orphans, and his childhood playmate elbows deep in boughs and holly. Thea is as stubborn and maddening as ever, so why does Alistair still find her more tempting than the Christmas pudding?
Somerset, Dec. 25, 1814
The first day of Christmas
It wasn’t as if the house had caught fire.
Thea slapped her pie crust dough onto her work table with such vigor the flour she’d scattered over the surface flew in every direction, coating her hair with a fine layer of white powder.
There’d hardly been any flames at all, for pity’s sake. They certainly hadn’t got as far as the drawing-room door, no matter what Alistair Wroth said. Such a fuss, and over nothing more than a few scorched raisins! Well, that and a singed carpet, but it was only the tiniest of holes. No one would even know it was there once the footmen moved the settee over it, and the smell of burnt wool would dissipate eventually. It had every other time—
“Orphan children playing with lit spirits, Miss Sheridan? Tell me, how far do you intend to go in the name of holiday cheer?”
The low drawl came from behind her, but Thea didn’t turn around. If she saw Alistair’s slow, mocking smile just now, there was no telling what she might do—
“Will a few burnt fingers suffice, or must the entire house go up in flames before you’re satisfied?”
Thea hefted the dough in her hand, considering. Perhaps she did know what she’d do, after all.
He marched into the kitchen, his boots ringing on the stone floor. “Cleves Court has never been my home, and a dozen of bowls of flaming brandy won’t change that.”
“Of course not, my lord.” Thea smiled over her clenched teeth, and imagined beating him about his head with her boughs of holly.
His blue eyes narrowed on her face. “I know what you’re up to, Miss Sheridan, and it won’t work.”
Thea’s hands stilled on the dough as she fought back a wave of panic. It would work, because if it didn’t, he’d close down the house and dismiss all the servants before the sun set on Boxing Day.
“Why, I’m not up to anything at all, my lord, except a jolly game of Snapdragon. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? Children have been playing it on Christmas Eve for centuries. We’ve played it here for years now, with no harm done.”
“No harm? There are at least six burn holes in my great-great-grandfather’s Aubusson carpet, and if I didn’t know better, I’d suspect someone tried to hide them under the furniture.”
Thea winced. Dash it all, she’d warned the footmen not to move those settees while Lord Archibald was in the room. “Well, as to that, there’s a perfectly innocent explanation—”
He held up his hand. “Never mind. I always hated that carpet, anyway. I only came down to reassure you we won’t be homeless for Christmas, after all. We’ve managed to douse the flames.”
“Indeed?” Goodness, what a relief that was. She’d been certain a handful of unruly raisins would end them all. “I’m pleased to hear it, my lord.”
“You don’t sound pleased.” He leaned a hip against the edge of the table, folded his arms over his chest, and raised an eyebrow at her. “You sound cross. I hope the fire hasn’t blackened your holiday spirts.”
Thea warned herself to hold her tongue, but as usual it didn’t listen. “No. I only wonder how you managed to put out such terrible flames. Did you smother them with the toe of your boot? Or did you beat them back with one of the tasseled silk pillows?”
“Such a saucy tongue.” He made a tsking sound, his voice heavy with mock regret. “Even as a child that tongue could flay the skin off the toughest hide.”
Thea sighed. He was right, and she hadn’t learned a blessed thing since then, had she? Only now it was inexcusable, because he wasn’t her friend anymore. He was an earl, and there was precious little of the tender-hearted boy she remembered in the man he’d become.
She wiped the dough from her hands, took a deep breath, and swallowed her pride. “I beg your pardon, my lord. I forgot myself.”
He studied her, and after a moment his face softened. “It’s not what you’ve forgotten that causes the trouble, Miss Sheridan,” he murmured. “It’s what you remember.”
Thea braced her hands on her work table as a wave of sadness washed over her. Every night for a year after he left Cleves Court, she’d lain awake in her bed, her eyes tightly closed, and wished with each beat of her heart that he’d return. She’d dreamed about him, even—about his eyes, such a remarkable shade of blue, dark like the sea during a storm, except when he smiled, and they lit up like a summer sky.
He didn’t smile now, but his blue gaze held hers. “We were friends once, long ago. Can’t we be friends again?”
Oh, how she wished it were as simple as that, but they weren’t children anymore. She shook her head, her heart heavy in her chest. “No, we’re not friends. You’re Lord Archibald now, and I’m your servant, and we can’t go on anymore as we did then.”
He moved closer. “It’s odd to hear you call me Lord Archibald.”
His nearness was wreaking havoc with her pulse, so Thea hurried away from him to retrieve the sack of flour a footman left by the door earlier that afternoon. “Why should it be? All the servants call you Lord Archibald.”
He took the sack from her and brought it to her work table. He’d removed his coat, and the thin white cambric shirt he wore stretched tight over his powerful shoulders. “I preferred it when you called me Alistair.” His brows drew together. “No one calls me that anymore,” he added, as if it had just occurred to him.
She’d turned back to her work table to measure more flour, but the forlorn note in his voice made her pause. “No one? Not even your friends in London?”
“No, not since I became the earl. Everyone calls me Archibald now, or Archie.” He cocked his head, considering her. “Why does it sound as if you’re trying not to laugh every time you call me by my title? What is it you find so amusing, Miss Sheridan?”
“Why, nothing at all.” A lie, of course, but since the truth involved unclothed body parts—his, specifically—a lie would have to do. “I don’t have the faintest idea what you mean, Lord Archibald.”
But she couldn’t quite disguise the trace of laughter in her voice as his title slipped off her tongue, and when his lips curved in a wry half-smile, she knew he’d heard it, too.
“I think you do.” He crooked a finger at her, his eyes glinting. “I’ll have it at once, if you please.”
Oh, he was a very devil, with those teasing blue eyes of his. “But it’s terribly shocking, my lord. I’m certain you won’t approve.”
Thea bit her lip to hide a grin. One night long ago, when they were 11-years old or so, she and Alistair had sneaked outdoors together for a forbidden swim in his father’s fishing pond, and through his wet nightclothes she’d seen . . . well, something she oughtn’t. It was difficult to think of him as a high-and-mighty peer of the realm when she’d seen his bits and pieces.
His lips twitched in an answering grin. “Shocking? Well, that sounds promising. I insist on having the reason, Miss Sheridan, and in case you’ve forgotten, I’m a terribly important earl now, and like most earls, I must have my way in all things.”
Thea huffed out a breath. He’d been an incorrigible tease as a boy, too. “Very well.” She planted her hands on her hips and raised her chin. “I can’t possibly call you ‘my lord’ with a straight face, because I’ve seen your bare bottom.”
There was a stunned silence, then he threw back his head with a shout of laughter. “My bare bottom? Don’t say you’ve been peeking at me while I’m in my dressing closet, Miss Sheridan.”
“Certainly not. What a wicked thing to say. Have you forgotten we used to swim in the pond together? Of course that was years ago, and I daresay your bottom has changed quite a bit since then . . .”
She trailed off, her face going hot with embarrassment. For goodness’ sakes, one did not discuss an earl’s bare bottom with him, even if she had seen it.
“I remember the pond. Vividly. I couldn’t forget it, since I saw your bare bottom that night too. I suppose it does seem absurd to observe the formalities now, given our scandalous history. Perhaps you should call me Alistair, Miss Sheridan.” His gaze dropped to her lips. “Or may I call you Thea?”
As soon as he said her name in that low drawl, something shifted between them, drew taut, then tighter still until the air hummed with tension. Thea’s heart began a wild fluttering against her ribs, but she tried for a casual shrug. “You may call me whatever you wish. I’m only a servant, after all, and you’re the lord of the manor.”
He touched his fingertips to her chin and raised her face so he could look into her eyes. “But I can’t think of you as a servant. I’ve tried, but when I see you in my mind I see your eyes, and I hear your laugh, and then I can’t think of anything else.”
Thea dropped her gaze, but raised it again at once when she found herself staring at the open neck of his shirt, at a bare patch of tawny skin. Oh, she wanted to kiss him there. Wanted to and couldn’t, because it wouldn’t be an innocent kiss, and she wouldn’t stop with one. “I—I beg you’ll excuse me, Lord Archibald. It’s quite late. I’m rather fatigued, and I have to finish the pudding still.”
He gave a slow shake of his head, cupping her face in his palm to still her. “I can’t think of you as a friend, either. I never could. But you already know that, don’t you, Thea?”
She shook her head, but he saw her shiver in reaction, and his eyes went darker than an ocean tempest.
He raised a hand and brushed his fingers against the loose tendrils of hair at her neck. “You have flour just here,” he murmured with a faint smile. “Here, too.” He trailed a fingertip down her cheek.
Thea stared at him, at the dark, tousled hair falling across his forehead, his blue eyes gleaming under lids gone heavy, at his mouth, his lips. Heat seared her, scorched every part of her body.
He watched her for a moment, then he wrapped gentle hands around her waist, and pulled her back against his hard chest. “Shall I help you?”
Thea nodded. She couldn’t speak.
His large, warm hands covered hers, and he laced their fingers together and pressed their joined palms into the dough. “Yes. That’s it. Lean back against me, Thea.”
She let her head drop back against his shoulder. A soft groan rose from his chest as lips brushed her neck, and she felt it in the deepest recesses of her heart.
Her eyes drifted closed. She couldn’t remember a time when she hadn’t been tempted by him—a time when she hadn’t loved him.
He’ll leave you behind.
In another week he’d close the house and go back to London, and when he left this time, he wouldn’t come back. She’d be alone again, with nothing but memories and a heart that would never recover, but God help her . . .
She was tempted still.
They Whisper about HerDelia Somerset knows the ton has tittered over her family’s disgrace since her mother’s spectacular scandal decades earlier. Delia’s policy with aristocrats is avoid, evade, ignore—that is until Lord Carlisle discovers she’s caught his younger brother’s roving eye and threatens to crush the gossip, and Delia, under his boot heel.Rogue. Rake. Seducer.Alec Sutherland, Lord Carlisle, ruins innocents as carelessly as picking roses in a garden, and Delia is a more tempting bloom than most since her mother was the London belle who humiliated the Sutherland family. After all, seduction is even more delicious when it’s sweetened with revenge. Delia has no intention of falling into Lord Carlisle’s arms, but to teach him a lesson she’ll pretend she’s one kiss away from surrender, right up to the moment when he tries to pluck the rose. Then he’ll get a fistful of thorns. But as soon as Delia tastes Alec’s fiercely passionate kisses, she fears she’s no longer pretending.Alec has ruthlessly rebuilt the Sutherland fortune, shilling by shilling and pound by pound. He hasn’t dragged his family back from the edge of ruin only to see them disgraced by a connection with Delia Somerset, no matter how tempting she is. But Alec’s perfect control slips further from his grasp every time he matches wits with spirited, clever Delia. She intrigues him. She maddens him. She challenges him. She’s about to see an icy earl set aflame with desire.The Wager of a LifetimeDelia is fighting against a scandalous past. Alec is fighting for his family’s future. But wicked games have dangerous consequences, and what begins as a battle over family pride soon becomes much riskier: a battle for hearts.Delia Somerset knows the ton has tittered over her family’s disgrace since her mother’s spectacular scandal decades earlier. Delia avoids aristocrats—that is until Lord Carlisle discovers she’s caught his younger brother’s roving eye and threatens to crush the gossip, and Delia, under his boot heel.Alec Sutherland, Lord Carlisle, ruins innocents as carelessly as picking roses in a garden, but Delia has no intention of falling into his arms. To teach him a lesson she’ll pretend she’s one kiss away from surrender, right up to the moment when he tries to pluck the rose. Then he’ll get a fistful of thorns. But as soon as Delia tastes Alec’s fiercely passionate kisses, she fears she’s no longer pretending.Alec’s perfect control slips further from his grasp every time he matches wits with spirited, clever Delia. She intrigues him. She maddens him. She challenges him. She’s about to see an icy earl set aflame with desire.
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