Mischief, Mayhem, and Marriage by Rebecca Connolly

CHAPTER 1

There was nothing that Taft Debenham, Earl of Harwood, loved so much as a good party.

And nothing he despised so much as a poor one.

This was, without a doubt, in the latter category.

It should have been an excellent evening, given the host and hostess and their connections with some of Taft’s favorite associates, and yet it was quite the opposite. He would even venture to say that it was the dullest evening he had spent in several years.

Why it was turning out to be such a failure of an evening was beyond Taft’s reckoning. The ball was well attended by Society in general without being a crush. The dinner had been delicious and well prepared without being overdone. There was plenty of dancing, all of the most sought-after young ladies and their favorite suitors were in attendance, and the Season was well underway, so it contained all of the necessary items for success in an event.

Yet it was entirely tepid. Boring. Spiritless. Mundane.

Monotonous.

Perhaps that was the problem, then. It was exactly like every other ball he had been to in the past two months, if not three years or so.

It was the same event. Over and over and over.

If there was anything destined to bore Taft, it was repetition.

Surely there had to be other events he could be using to fill his time and social calendar. He was in high demand, so he could obtain an invitation to anything he wished to, be it a house party, a private opera, or a scholarly debate evening. The latter might have raised a few eyebrows, but he could have surprised them.

Taft wasn’t all fluff and no substance.

Just mostly.

He had sat for his exams at Cambridge, and managed very well, much to his own surprise. It had been as perfect a situation as he might have hoped, all things considered. If he was going to be a gentleman and maintain the reputation he wished to as a wealthy, high-ranking member of the peerage, it would be best if he accomplished everything generally expected of such without exception and without flaw.

The Earl of Harwood had always been a position that commanded great respect in previous generations, and the epitome of a fine gentleman.

Taft was not about to break that tradition.

He’d rather start a few traditions of his own, being the most sociable and popular bachelor this Season and last. And prior to that claim, he was in the top one percent of most popular bachelors.

His competition had all married off apart from one, who had lost his fortune on a wild gambling streak that had landed him in debtors’ prison.

Now only Taft remained.

He rather enjoyed being so sought after and so well liked, and being able to be so without turning into a complete fop or perfect picture of propriety was truly a relief. He would lose some of that status if he were to marry, unless his wife were equally as popular, and while there were several candidates to such a position, Taft either had known them from his youth or considered them to be a youth. Despite being an earl and having a title and inheritance to pass on, he was not precisely worried about such a thing at the moment.

Nor was he particularly interested in it.

He preferred flirting and flippancy to adoration and attachment. He always flirted with sincerity, for what it was worth. And he had it on very good authority that he was quite accomplished at it.

“Why are you not dancing?”

Taft smirked in his usual sardonic way, turning to face one of his oldest and dearest friends. “Because, my dear Jane, I have run out of partners who are my equal.”

Jane Appleby, formerly Richards, scoffed and looped her arm through his. “Nonsense. You haven’t danced with me.”

“You are in no condition to dance,” he reminded her, his eyes flicking to the rounded surface of her stomach. “Appleby would not like it if I were to challenge that, and he is exactly the size, stature, and athleticism of a man that I distinctly avoid irritating. I’ve seen him in the ring, and I will not be made into a corpse over a jig.”

“It might be worth it just to see the look on your face.” Jane exhaled an almost wistful sigh, her smile rather fond. “He is a dear man. I adore him.”

Taft had to smile at that. “I should hope so, my dear. You were not the match of the Season last year for nothing. Romance and connection? Masterfully done, truly.”

Jane whacked his arm gently. “I did not marry him for your amusement, you know. Or the opinions and approval of Society.”

“Of course not!” Taft protested in mock outrage. Then he winked. “But when one can do as one chooses and manage to gain the envy of all in the process? Brilliance, my dear. Sheer brilliance.”

She bobbed a very slight curtsey, her hold on him tightening as the action became a little unsteady. “I was once brilliant,” she mumbled, shaking her head as she righted herself. “Now I am only awkward and ungainly. Swollen in places I did not know one could swell. Constantly fatigued and randomly irritable. Mark me, Taft, and take pity on your future wife when she should find herself in a similar situation.”

Taft winced at the thought. “I haven’t the faintest idea what you mean. My wife, when she is in existence, will be utterly radiant when in the aforementioned condition. Nothing like you at all.”

A sharp elbow jabbed into his side. “Why do I ever confide in you, Taft?”

“Because you have no brothers and wish your parents had adopted me as one,” he replied easily, dropping his facade to grin at her with real warmth. “Would you have come this evening at all if Maria had not insisted?”

“Of course not.” Jane snorted softly. “Appleby and I much prefer quiet evenings at home. I’ve lost my taste for the fuss and bother of Society events, I believe.”

Taft could see that, though he did not think he would ever feel the same. Even when he was at Battensay Park in Berkshire, he was always entertaining in some respect. House parties were in great demand, and it was unthinkable for him to not have at least two balls a year for all of his neighbors. Then there were the harvest suppers, the Boxing Day feast, the skating day on his lake for the local children, and the ever-popular fruit-picking outing in his extensive orchards.

He was the epitome of all hosts. And that was not his pride talking, it had been expressed to him by no less than four guests, none of whom he was related to.

But it might also have been his pride a little.

He was no saint, after all.

Really, it was astonishing he could even manage time away from his estate for the Season, given all he had to contend with there. But he always made a point of coming to London when the Season reached its fervor and had never once regretted doing so.

He’d be sure to have a house party in a few weeks or so, once the carefully subtle questions about it began to swirl. He never hosted in the same month from year to year, and thus far, had not even repeated in the same week. Those who wished to attend would either need to remain alert and available for his whims or make whatever arrangements they needed to at the time of invitation to ensure attendance.

More than one ill-prepared invitee had been left socially marooned by Taft’s method of such things. He had no apologies for them. No person was worth moving heaven and earth to accommodate.

Which might have been why Taft had yet to marry.

Or why he had so few friends of genuine value.

Still, he was perfectly comfortable with his life and was not about to make any changes in it.

“So I take it you and Appleby will politely and regretfully decline the invitation to my house party?” Taft asked Jane as though with only passing interest.

She heaved a dramatic sigh. “Yes, and I am already feeling the loss keenly. I shall have to name this child Taft in recompense.”

“Only if it is a boy, surely.”

Jane glanced up at him with a playful smile. “Oh, no, regardless of gender. Miss Taft Appleby will be the envy of all. Wouldn’t you like being so honored?”

Taft shuddered and shook his head. “Do not give my goddaughter such a curse, Janie. Not even I would enjoy that sort of attention.”

“Well, you may not have a choice. How else might I show my grief at missing such an illustrious occasion?”

He knew Jane was teasing him, was building up the significance of the event and her absence to ridicule his status, but she was also exactly the sort of person to do exactly as she teased just to prove a point.

Appleby would need to be warned.

“I’ve changed my mind,” Taft said at once, sniffing as he raised his chin. “I am not inviting you. Given your condition, it would be tasteless and tactless to do so.”

“What?” Jane retorted with a laugh. “Come now, you must invite me in spite of that.”

“No.” He shook his head again. “See to your confinement. You will not be invited. But I will bemoan your absence the entire time.”

Jane sputtered a form of laughter and nudged him hard. “You are ridiculous.”

“I am not the one requesting an invitation to a house party I cannot attend,” he pointed out. “Ridiculous is as ridiculous does, Janie.”

“Perhaps you are right.” She patted his arm, looking around the room. “Hmm. Have you seen my cousin anywhere? I know she is here, but I do not see her.”

Taft had also been scanning the room, more to plot his next course of action than anything else. “Which cousin? You have at least twelve.”

“Alexandrina,” she told him, ignoring the jab. “Lady Lawson.”

He jerked and stared at her in horror. “Oh, heavens, is she here?”

Jane gave him a scolding look. “Be nice.”

“What? I only asked if she was here!”

She rolled her eyes. “The pair of you are so dreadful in reference to each other, and yet I adore you both individually. Yes, she is here. Or I presume she still is, unless she has fled.”

“She would flee from the gates of heaven, if the design did not suit,” Taft mumbled, a shudder ricocheting up his spine. “Unpleasant, ill-tempered, prickly thundercloud of a woman.”

“What did I say about adoring her?” Jane thumped him on the arm hard, her jaw tightening. “Apologize or compliment her.”

Taft swallowed a rather bitter taste at the idea. “She has rather good teeth.”

Jane groaned. “Weak, but I’ll take it.”

“I noted such when she bared them at me,” he continued, keeping his tone conversational. “Not a fang among them.”

“Taft . . .”

He glanced down at her with a slight smile. “I don’t have to like everybody, you know. And Lord knows, she hasn’t done anything to become likable in my eyes.”

Jane sighed softly, but did not argue the point, which seemed significant. There was nothing Jane loved so much as a good argument fairly fought.

He thought the subject closed, then he heard her say, “You have no idea what she must contend with.”

It was not like Jane to be melodramatic or mysterious, and Taft frowned at her a little. “What could she possibly have to contend with?”

“I cannot say.” Jane shook her head, then patted his arm. “Try to think better of her. For my sake, at least.” She moved away before he could reply, leaving him staring after her in confusion.

He’d never bothered to curb his tongue in her presence, even where Lady Lawson was concerned, and she’d always laughed it off, brushed him off, or jabbed him with excessively pointy elbows. She’d never given him reason to believe there was anything amiss with her cousin, or that her spiteful ways were anything less than her nature. She had never asked him to change his views or cease his commenting, though he certainly would have done so had he thought her truly offended in any way.

It did not necessarily alter his opinions about the lady in question, but it did give him pause.

His interactions with Lady Lawson had not been extensive, but they had been memorable. A house party at Rosennor Hall, home of his friend Larkin Roth and his now wife Sophia, had introduced them two years ago, and absolutely nothing about the event had given the woman pleasure. Everyone else had considered it a triumph, apart from its abrupt ending due to an unfortunate scene with Larkin’s unwell mother, but Lady Lawson could not have been less pleased. She was not hostile in recollection of it; she simply did not care.

Why Jane had insisted on bringing her along was still a mystery.

Since then, he had crossed paths with the sour woman from time to time, usually at small events, and she had never been remotely pleased to see him. Or to be in attendance. Or to exist at all, it seemed. He had never in his life met a woman so incapable of smiling.

Oh, she managed to make her thin lips curve just enough upon greeting someone that politeness was maintained, but he would just as soon call a coyote a hound as to call that a smile.

And he was to believe she had cause to be thus?

Highly unlikely.

He would not call Jane’s integrity into question, but her sympathetic nature for her relation had certainly clouded her judgment. Which was to be commended, however misplaced such sympathy might be.

Taft began to examine the room once more, his eyes darting from person to person as he looked for that unfortunate and unpleasant cousin. It should not be too difficult to discover her. He need only look for the only scowling face in the ballroom.

And her cousin was the hostess.

Unfathomable.

But as he searched each guest, he caught no sight of Lady Lawson, which did seem rather odd. Not disappointing by any stretch, only odd. While she might have been constantly unimpressed and unhappy in her surroundings, she was, he had to admit, never rude.

To the host or hostess, at any rate. She was quite impolite to Taft.

When he provoked her.

Which made her a worthy adversary, he supposed.

Still, she would not have intentionally disappeared from her cousin’s party for long enough to draw comment. No one would likely miss her except her relations, but to cause them concern over her was certainly not something the lady would wish.

Someone ought to attempt to find her.

He counted the space of thirteen heartbeats before he pressed his tongue to his teeth, rolling his eyes and moving towards the doors to the garden.

It was such a shame he considered himself a gentleman, as the gentlemanly thing to do at the moment would be to go in search of the lady, given his connection with the family of the hostess.

Why could he not have been more of a villain?

Scowling for himself alone, leaving his facial expression blank for the company, Taft reached the doors and paused, turning back in the hopes that Jane or her sister had found the lost cousin so he would not have to.

Alas, neither was in the company of a desolate creature.

Nothing for it, then.

He pushed open the doors and moved out into the relative coolness of the night, taking a moment to let his eyes adjust. The gardens were not all that expansive, but they were rather full, and not in possession of the same brilliant lighting one might have wished for in such a place. Which made it a haven for those who did not wish to be found and a danger for those who did not know better.

Did he whistle for Lady Lawson? Call out to see if she was within?

If she were merely taking a moment for herself, he would irritate her by discovery. If her motives were something else entirely . . .

Gads. Was she intelligent enough or worldly enough to know the risks of being out in this with someone else?

Was that, perhaps, her plan?

Widows were admittedly freer than most about such assignations, but surely she would not have engaged in one at her own cousin’s party.

Not of her own free will.

A jolt of icy awareness shot through him. What if her own free will was in danger here? He wouldn’t stand for that, not even for her. Not for any woman. Any creature.

He peered into the gardens as much as he could, searching for any sign of her.

Something rustled to his northeast, and he heard a distinctly feminine voice hiss a curse.

Lady Lawson, he would presume.

His mouth curved into a slight smile, and he strode away from the house and into the dense growth of the gardens before him.