The Earl in My Bed

By: Stacy Reid

Dusean, always and forever





Chapter One

Six years earlier…

Hampstead, England, 1816

“Good God!”

Miss Daphne Elizabeth Collins whipped her head up, searching for the source of that expression of appalled disbelief. The light of the noonday sun valiantly peeking from behind bloated clouds obscured her vision. She kicked against the strong currents of the river while holding onto the wiggling bundle in her arms.

“Thank heavens! Don’t just stand there, help me,” she gasped out. A light misting rain fell, and thunder rumbled in the darkened sky, a warning that more rain was on the horizon.

The gentleman who’d stumbled upon her swung from his impressive horse and rushed toward the embankment. He knelt in the mud, uncaring that he was dirtying his breeches, and held out his hands. Releasing the jutting bramble, she slapped her hand into his, trusting that he would not allow the river to take her away. Dear God, let us be safe soon.

He braced himself and hauled her from the churning water. He tried to stand, tugging her with him, but they tumbled along the slippery slope. He slammed into the earth with a grunt but was of a mind to protect her by wrapping his arms around her as she fell against him. The feel of his powerfully muscled body beneath hers sent shock and intrigue rushing through her veins.

She could not have been in the water for more than a few minutes, but she was chilled to her bones. Daphne stirred, and her cold nose brushed against his rigid jawline.

“I must say, this is not at all proper, is it?” she said into the curve of his neck, conscious of the wonderful heat emanating from him.

With a muttered and very ungentlemanlike curse, he pushed her off him as if he had touched the plague, and Daphne found herself sprawled indecorously onto mud and grass. Her dress was muddied and ruined, her bonnet sat askew atop her head, there was a rip in her stocking, and one of her boots had somehow been lost. She was horribly aware of her bedraggled appearance. If Papa saw her now, she would have to be the very picture of female respectability and demure modesty before he would allow her to leave her chamber. Somehow, she would need to return to Seaview Manor and slip through the kitchens to avoid her father and governess discovering her terribly disheveled state. She chuckled softly at the challenge of pulling the wool over the eyes of her very observant and priggish governess.

“There is nothing remotely humorous in this situation,” her rescuer said a trifle peevishly.

As if to mock his assertions, her four-month-old energetic and badly trained wolfhound, Gulliver, licked the stranger’s face, yipping and wagging his tail.

“I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole,” he muttered, trying to find purchase on the slippery slope as he stood. “The day cannot worsen.”

Daphne was saved from the necessity of a reply as her puppy bounded over to her and licked along her chin. No doubt the wretch was grateful she had jumped into the water without thought to save his life.

“If you will allow me to assist you, miss?”

She glanced up at one of the most handsome gentlemen she had ever seen, even a messy and irritated one. Vivid green eyes peered down at her with studied seriousness.

“Miss Daphne Collins,” she said, reaching for the hand he held out.

Once again, he attempted to pull her up, and they went tumbling down. He cursed. She laughed. It was all remarkably ridiculous.

A reluctant smile tugged at his lips. “Perhaps if we are very slow and careful.”

“I agree, Mister…?”

“Carrington.”

She smiled, and they carefully found purchase and made their way up the slope toward the horse. The rain fell harder, and a mortifying sneeze rushed from her. An elegantly embroidered handkerchief materialized, and she took it, rather grateful for his courteousness. “Thank you, Mr. Carrington.”

“Are you here alone?”

She nodded.

“How far do you need to go?”

She swiped several droplets of rain from her face. “Seaview Manor, a few miles from here.” She pointed east, barely able to distinguish her home in the distance. “I was chasing Gulliver when he fell into the water. I was obliged to rescue the scamp,” she said, bending to scoop him into her arms.

The harsh disapproval of her rescuer’s mouth softened as he peered at her puppy. “Your actions were foolhardy. What if I hadn’t ridden along?”

A low growl escaped Gulliver, as if he understood this unknown gentleman was scolding her reckless bid to save him.

“I’ve never been accused of being cowardly, and my little love would have drowned had I not saved him.” Another frightful sneeze escaped her into the wonderfully fragranced handkerchief.

“Heavier rain is imminent, and we must find shelter. Have you ever ridden astride?” he asked.

“Yes,” she admitted, casting a quick glance about, though there was one else present to hear her confession of improper behavior.

He mounted his horse with masculine and graceful ease. He held out his hand to her, and she blinked before reaching up and allowing him to aid her onto the horse, behind him. Her entire body blushed to be so pressed up against him. Gulliver whined and tried to wriggle from her grasp, but she held tightly onto him as the stranger thundered off.