The Earl Next Door (First Comes Love #1) - Amelia Grey

Chapter 1

As misunderstandings go, the one that led to the Dowager Countess of Wake being mistaken for a lady of the night would qualify as rather large, unfortunate, and beyond insulting. That it was made by a man who caused the very proper Adeline to imagine just the sort of things that might go on in a house of ill repute only served to make her even more furious than perhaps the misunderstanding warranted.

In her defense, she’d just had a somewhat startling shock after pulling a crimson corset from a stack of neatly folded fabrics when the forceful clank of the door knocker sounded throughout the house. She was working her way through the swatches in the drawing room, trying to make decisions on the gowns she would have made for her first Season since becoming a widow. That the modiste had included the under apparel must have been a mistake. The red was Adeline’s favorite color, a flaming decadent shade that no lady would ever wear—even under her clothing.

Especially not a widow.

No doubt it was the “especially not a widow” thought that got to her. When Adeline realized she’d never have another opportunity to put on something so utterly unacceptable, she did, well, the unacceptable. Before she could think better of it, she loosened the front laces and slipped the corset over her head, letting the extraordinary garment settle over her dark widow’s dress. The knock at the door was all but forgotten as she inhaled deeply and tightened the crimson ribbons under her breasts before tying the ends together.

It was magnificent. Naughty. But she didn’t care. It made her feel, of all things, feminine.

She spied a length of luxurious fabric that surely confirmed this box had been delivered to the wrong address and was intended for someone else. Someone so very unlike her. Not that it stopped Adeline from pulling the gold swath of tulle from the stack and wrapping it twice around her waist. In no time at all she had fluffed the gossamer cloth and fashioned the sash into a big, perfect bow.

It was completely out of character for her to indulge in such unfitting behavior, but why stop now that she’d started? Feeling deliciously wicked to be so brazen, she pulled the sleeves of her dress low on her shoulders and twirled a couple of times. She admired the forbidden elegance enhancing her shape, which was always hidden behind the straight, waist-less fall of her skirt.

What would the ton think if she, a dowager countess, showed up for the first ball wearing such a brilliant shade of red? Or her stays outside her gown? She smiled just thinking about all the horrified expressions she’d see on the faces of Society’s elite ladies of the ton. And then Adeline wondered what the handsome gentlemen would think of her. Widow or not, twenty-two was much too young not to ever look at or think about a man again. To want his eager kisses and the soft stroke of his masculine hand against her skin.

So caught up in the freedom of her improper thoughts, the richness of the fabrics, and the childlike innocence of spinning around as if she didn’t have a care in the world, she didn’t hear the footsteps down the corridor. Somewhat belatedly, she did hear her housekeeper’s gasp.

But it wasn’t Mrs. Lawton she noticed standing in the doorway when she stopped whirling.

Adeline took in the tall, black-cloaked figure whose gaze was staring straight at her as her skirts settled around her legs and she regained her balance. The housekeeper was trying her best to keep