The Importance of Being Wanton - Christi Caldwell Page 0,1

Charles called, climbing another branch higher. “I am?”

“Come down this instant. You are too old for climbing trees, young man,” the marquess bellowed. “Tell him, Aster.”

There came a slight rustle and a grunt, and Charles looked all the way down just as his mother pulled herself onto the first branch, and then the second. “Your father says you are too old for climbing trees,” she said, and the slight emphasis she placed on those first two words brought Charles his first real smile of the whole miserable day. Catching his eye, she winked.

His grin widened.

Alas, that smile also proved short-lived.

“The guests have already begun arriving, Charles,” his mother said from where she balanced on a lower branch. “Emma’s father is asking to speak with you before the ceremony.”

Charles’s stomach lurched, and by the way his belly turned, he was pretty certain he was going to cast his morning biscuits down below. Which . . . might not be an altogether bad thing. Surely his father would cancel the whole damned day after such a horror?

The marquess shook his fist. “I am not going anywhere. If you don’t come down, I will bring the damned ceremony to you. Is that clear?”

Charles peered down at his father. “Ah, but doesn’t the ceremony require two?”

“She’s gone exploring, as she’s wont to do. You know that.” His mother rolled her eyes. That was likely something Charles should have known about his intended. And perhaps he would have if the betrothed in question weren’t six, and if, instead, he were a grown man, marrying a grown woman of his choosing. “In fact, she’s likely already been found. If you’d just come down . . .”

As the marquess shouted up his demands, Charles’s mother spoke just two words down to her husband. “Dear heart.” There was something in her quiet voice, calm enough to break through the blustery tirade.

“I know that . . . I’m not . . .” The marquess sighed. “Very well.” He opened his mouth to say something else to Charles, but his wife gave him a long look. “Very well,” Charles’s father mumbled once more, and with a last glare for his son, he marched off.

The marchioness waited several moments for her husband to leave before drawing herself higher up onto the tree.

“Mother!” Charles called down warningly as she continued to make the high climb. When she gave no hint of stopping, he immediately scrambled down several branches, meeting her halfway.

As if she were greeting any of the expected guests for that day and not on a high perch some eleven or twelve feet from the ground, his mother seated herself on the wide branch. “And this from someone who was adamant that age shouldn’t be a tree-climbing deterrent?”

“You’re a lady.”

“And if you’re speaking like that, then I’ve failed in my role as a mother,” she said drolly.

No, she hadn’t. Quite the opposite. She’d been loving where his father had been removed. She’d been supportive where his father couldn’t have been bothered. And yet, even with all that . . . she’d still attempt to come up here and compel him to wed.

“She’s a lovely girl, Charles,” his mother said with a quiet insistence, as if she’d followed the very thoughts he’d spoken.

Yes, that was it, exactly. “She is a girl. A little girl. A babe.”

“Yes, yes, but she won’t always be, and then she’ll be grown up and you’ll suit one another very nicely. You will.”

He cast his mother a sideways look, searching for a sign that she was jesting, because surely she was.

“Why, I married your father, and we were betrothed as babes. And look at us.” She smiled widely, and he took a moment to realize that she was deadly serious. That her words were not spoken with sarcasm or in kidding.

Far be it from him to point out that their comfortable, tedious arrangement accounted in large part for the reason he’d resurrected his tree-climbing skills.

With a sigh, he looked out between the enormous yew branches to the rolling green hills he so loved. A place that would now forever be tainted with this thing his parents would have him do. Because if he couldn’t reason with his mother, there was absolutely no hope. Still, he tried one more time. He forced his gaze away from the countryside and over to the one parent he had always thought valued his opinion and would let him have a say in his future. “You are really going to make me do