The Importance of Being Wanton - Christi Caldwell



This was hell.

There was nothing else for it.

Or Charles Hayden, the Earl of Scarsdale, was being punished.

Or his parents hated him.

Or, perhaps, it was a combination of every given factor.

Either way, this was where he drew the absolute last line.

Gasping and out of breath, Charles raced along the dew-slicked grass.

“Chaaarles! I am calling you!”

Yes, the whole damned county could hear as much. That pursuit was also the reason for Charles’s flight. He clenched his teeth. Well, not just that pursuit. The reason behind it.

All of it, really.

The Marquess of Rochester was entirely to blame.

The soles of Charles’s leather shoes proved another enemy to him that day. He went skidding and sliding forward. On a gasp, Charles shot out his palms and caught himself against the trunk of the ancient yew. His heart pounding from the race he’d just run, he leaned against the enormous tree.

Mayhap his father wouldn’t find him here. Mayhap—

Something struck Charles in the chest, and he glanced down. A small rock rested atop the tip of his shoe. What in hell? He whipped about, searching for the source of that missile. It would seem he was under attack from a number of foes this day.

His father’s voice grew increasingly closer. “. . . aaaarles . . . !”

His panic swelled, replacing his momentary distraction, and Charles scoured the horizon.

A mere speck appeared in the distance. There could be no doubting, however, the identity of that figure drawing nearer.

Nay, those two figures.

Tossing aside one shoe, Charles reached for his other. Haste, however, made his fingers clumsy, and he fumbled with the damned thing.

At last, he managed to get the Blucher boot free.

“I said . . . get back . . .”

He firmed his jaw. By God, if they wanted him, they were going to have to catch him.

Hopping up, Charles climbed onto the old, gnarled limb a foot from the ground, then used the enormous yew as his ladder toward freedom.

He’d reached the sixth branch, some seven feet from the ground, when they caught up to him.

The illustrious Marquess of Rochester skidded to a stop similar to his son’s, with Charles’s mother arriving close behind.

Hunched over, his long white hair tousled, Charles’s father gasped for air. However, even with his hands resting on his knees, he still somehow managed to glower up at Charles.

But then, that was the way of the marquess. Capable of commanding with a single look. Of ruling all. Including one’s son. Especially one’s son. Alas, Charles had been ordered about for the last time.

“What in thunderation are you doing?” his father cried.

“I think that should be fairly clear.” Charles paused. “I’m climbing a tree.” And hiding. But he’d be damned if he used those words.

His breath having resumed a semblance of normality but for the intermittent gasp, the marquess straightened. “Get down here before you kill yourself and I am left heirless.”

The hell he would. Charles made no move to abandon the spot he’d secured himself. “You’ve plenty of hair. Far more than is fashionable,” he called down. “In fact, I have always been stunned that someone as stringent as you in terms of society should—”

“I meant heir-less.” His father scowled. “As in without an heir.”

Charles smirked. It was entirely too easy.

“I believe he was making a jest,” Charles’s still-winded mother explained to her husband. Cupping her hands about her mouth, she spoke loudly enough to make the marquess wince. “Isn’t that right, Charles?”

Charles gave a little mock salute. “Indeed.”

With a pleased smile, she turned back to the marquess. “See? As I said. Merely a jest.” Yes, because she had always had a sense of humor and often was left attempting to explain even the simplest quip to the staid, humorless, duty-driven marquess. Betrothed as children, the pair had been married forever, and had known each other even longer.

Charles shuddered. It was the last fate he would ever want, that medieval manner of marriage. And the one he desperately sought to escape now. “Though technically, you’d not be heirless, either, Father,” Charles gleefully pointed out. “You’d be spare-less, as there’s always Derek to fill the role.” Derek, who, by his fortunate entry after Charles, would never be saddled with the hell Charles had.

“This is not the time for games or jests or technicalities . . . or . . . or . . . tree-climbing,” the marquess sputtered.

All the while, Charles’s mother proceeded to murmur calm platitudes to her husband.

“He is being unreasonable, Aster.” His father spoke as if Charles weren’t even present.

“I’m being unreasonable?”