A Dare too Far by Charlie Lane

Chapter 1

December 18, 1818

Jane would get the mistletoe herself. Everyone else was busy, and she did not wish to disturb them for something so trivial. No. Not trivial. Her mother had loved mistletoe. And Lillian—her dear moon-eyed, love-lorn friend—needed it.

She pulled on her brother's boots over two pairs of his thick, woolen socks and checked her sash was tied tight enough around his pants. They were much too large, but her stepmother had thrown all of Jane's own pants away with a giggle and a gleam in her eye, and she'd not yet had time to replace them.

Jane shrugged Christiana out of her mind and shrugged into her warmest and oldest velvet and fur pelisse. She buttoned it tight, then threw a cape around her shoulders for good measure. It was cold outside, but she also needed the extra layers to conceal her garments. Hopefully, no one looked at her lower limbs. From the waist up, she looked a warm and properly dressed youngish maiden. From the waist down, if one peered through the cape and gap in her pelisse, she wore pants. And boots. Not ideal, that. From perspectives other than her own, at least.

Pulling on gloves, she raced out of her bedroom door.

The hallway filled with raucous laughter and the clangs of a poorly played song on the pianoforte. The house-party guests gathered in the music room, serenaded, no doubt, by Christiana with a come-hither look and a bawdy song.

The perfect time to escape.

“Thank you, Christiana,” Jane whispered with a glance toward the music room. Her stepmother did have her uses now and then.

She slinked toward the front door, humming with victory.

“Lady Jane!”

Jane froze. She suppressed a groan and prayed Lord Sharpton would not look too closely at her skirts. Or rather, lack thereof.

She turned slowly, forcing a smile to her face. “Lord Sharpton. How are you today?”

“We are all in the music room, my lady. Will you join us?” He slid a hand over the yellow hair slicked back from his high forehead and angular face and eyed the front door behind her suspiciously. “Are you going outside? It’s freezing.”

She laughed, hoping she sounded light. “I must see to a detail or two in the stables momentarily. I’ll join the group as soon as I’m able.”

The suspicion dropped from his face, and the new expression he adopted may have been akin to disgust, but at this distance from him, she could not be certain.

“It is not your job to worry about such dirty matters, Lady Jane. Let the servants tend to it and join us in merriment.”

She felt less merry every moment. She wanted to retrieve the mistletoe, and she wanted to do it alone. She’d not had a moment’s peace for the last week since the army of suitors had arrived. If she did not take that moment now, she might explode.

“Lord Sharpton, it is kind of you to worry about me, but it is a matter of some import. Do enjoy Christiana’s expertise at the pianoforte, and I will join you and the others soon.”

She turned toward the door.

“Lady Jane, I—”

She opened the door, swept through, and slammed it shut, praying he didn’t follow. Considering how cold and dirty he thought the outdoors to be, he likely would not.

That man, she could not marry.

But marry, she must. She even wanted to. But not that man.

She walked around to the side of the house and made her way to the center of the hedge maze and the rifle she'd hidden there earlier this morning. She retrieved it from under a stone bench and re-paced the maze's twists and turns.

Oof!” Jane stumbled backward after coming into hard and unexpected contact with a male form. She steadied herself.

“My deepest apologies, Lady Jane.” Lord Devon, the man whose name was attached to hers in scandal, looked sheepishly at her. “I saw you escape into the maze, and I thought I might join you.” His body listed a breath to the right, and brandy fumes wafted from between his lips. His yellow hair fell in front of his face in a decidedly unkept tangle. How the man sent Lillian’s heart fluttering, Jane would never understand.

“I wished to speak with you,” he said, except wished sounded suspiciously like swished. “That a gun?”

“It is. I’m—ah—taking it out to practice my marksmanship.”

He nodded, accepting her lie. “I’ll join you.”

“I am afraid I’m after a bit of solitude, my lord.” Jane wrapped her layers more tightly around her and stepped to the side. There was more than one way out of the maze, but at the particular bend where they stood, only one direction would take her toward the exits. She’d have to go around Lord Devon to get there.

He dropped to a knee. “I’ve not proposed romantically yet. I thought it might help.”

She sighed. “Please, do stand up.”

He remained kneeling and looked up at her with pale blue eyes the color of a winter sky. “Scandal hovers over the both of us. We must wed. Why you fail to see this, I—” He broke off, shaking his head.

“Please, do stand.”

His scruff-shadowed jaw tightened. Stubborn man. “Marry me, Lady Jane.”

“We did nothing to warrant a hasty marriage shaded in guilt. You did nothing, at least. I’m the one who hid in your traveling coach. It’s simply bad luck someone saw us and set tongues wagging.”

“And wagging tongues ruined your good name. Someone, some man, must make it right.”

An unfortunate truth. She grabbed his hands and hauled him to his feet. Every inch of his skin smelled of the liquor he imbibed from dawn to dusk.

“That is what this house party is for, is it not? You apologized twice in London, and I refused your kind offer twice. You are exculpated from all responsibility. Why are you here?”

He blinked and scratched his head, trying to discern the answer through the London fog his brain had likely turned into. “If I do not salvage your honor, I ruin my own. My brother is vexed with me for this debacle. I am vexed with myself. I should have marched you right back to London as soon as I discovered you.” His face, ruddy from cold and drink, paled. “I did not. It is as much my failing as it was your own.”

“I try not to look at it as a failing, Lord Devon. I hid in your coach to help my friend. I thought she needed my support. I was running after her. Helping a friend is hardly a failing. It is the ton’s issue if they insist it is.”

Lord Devon’s breath clouded the air between them, his pale eyes far away. “You are a stout soul. We would do well together.”

“No, we would not.” She did not care for boys who drowned their sorrows and shocks of life in drink.

He leaned to one side, then the other, as if a wind gusted him about. “How can I make it right if you will not marry me?”

“Let me worry about my matrimonial status. There are three other suitable men inside who are after my dowry. Four if you count Lord Sharpton, and I do not. If you wish to please me, you should avoid spirits, not avoid other much more eligible and prettier women than me, and… take a bath. You reek, Lord Devon. I feel it is kind of me to say, if not proper. You do not wish others to smell you in such a state, I hope.”

He lifted an arm, ducked his head, took in a deep breath, and turned green. He gagged. “Good God. I do reek. No wonder you refused my proposal.” He straightened and took a heavy breath of the fresh winter air.

Jane inched around him in the small space, clinging to the shrubbery. “And do not propose to me again.”

“I cannot promise that,” Lord Devon said. “But I will promise to bathe.”

Jane backed down the walkway. “Excellent. And then go find Lillian. She needs some companionship on this drab day.”

“Miss Clarke?”

“Just so.” Jane turned and quickly retraced the pathways of the maze.

“Wait,” she heard Lord Devon say, “how do I get out of here?”

Getting lost would keep him from coming after her. And the maze was not so big or complicated that he’d be lost long, even in his inebriated state.

Escaping the maze, she turned toward the forest.

Jaunting off on her own was ill-advised. Impetuous. She would likely have to climb the tree to retrieve the mistletoe, and what if she fell? But with four house guests, the entire family home, and Christmas in seven days, the servants were at their busiest. She could not bring herself to disturb them. And she needed space between herself and her suitors. They crowded round like angry spirits, but more jovial, smothering her with their smiles and amiability. And proposals.

She pulled her cloak closer and tugged its hood low over her brow as she passed through the tree line and into the woods. She stopped, closed her eyes, and breathed deep. She liked noise and action, but the quiet of the forest soothed her. A bird tweeted high above, and she opened her eyes with a grin. The forest did not have a true quiet. Perhaps that’s why she liked it so.

She craned her neck and looked toward the canopy above. Where was it? She’d found it the other day. But Simon the footman had been with her then, and he did keep up a steady stream of chatter. She’d not been concentrating, and now the location eluded her.

Hells.

She trudged forward, letting the cold settle into her bones, letting the not-quite-silence of the forest calm her. She’d thought that week the gossip of her elopement had spread like wildfire through the ton had been bad. There had been no elopement after all, only an abominable bad decision to hie north with the single Lord Devon in order to convince her friend to come back to London. Really, she should have expected the outcome. Ruination.

But that had been a lovely spring picnic compared to the chaos that had followed. Her father doubled her dowry, and her stepmother announced she would host a Christmas winter house party. Single men only to be invited. The prized Christmas gift—Jane’s hand in marriage.

She was lucky to have choices after what she’d done. She should already be married to Lord Devon. And no one had been more shocked than Jane when her father had allowed her to refuse the proposal of a duke’s younger brother.

She wanted to marry. She had to. But not to Lord Devon. Lillian’s heart might break if that happened, and Jane would not hurt her friend that way. Or any way if she could help it.

She stopped once more and looked up, peering into the treetops. The mistletoe should be easy to spy. All the other foliage had long ago faded, crisped, and fluttered to the ground. The round bursts of greenery would stand out like suns in the naked branches.

Ah ha! There. Jane ran toward the greenery, and when she found the exact tree, she circled round it. The trunk was too stout to shimmy up, but the closest branch hung low indeed. She could easily haul herself up on top of it. She studied the path of branches from the lowest to the highest where the mistletoe lived. Yes, an easy enough journey, though it would take her high.

She would have to loosen it first, though. She pulled the rifle from around her neck and dug in her pocket for the powder and balls. Hopefully, one shot would be enough, but if not, she’d come prepared. She made short work of loading the gun, aimed, and fired.

And missed.

“Damn,” she hissed, her warm breath fogging the air. She reloaded and took aim. “You’re mine.” She had plans for this mistletoe. It had been her mother’s favorite Christmas decoration. It needed to be everywhere in the house, over every door, and draped on every table, exactly as her mother had liked.

She fired the rifle again. It hit the tree with a crack, and the mistletoe ball quivered.

She pumped one fist into the air. “Huzzah!”

Birds screeched and wheeled into the air, away from their perches.

“Sorry!” She waved them goodbye, then eyed the branch. Hm. It would take one more shot. She eyed the contents of the bag of powder. Enough for one more shot.

“That’s all I’ll need.” It would work this time. She reloaded, aimed, fired.

And hit her mark. “Yes!”

The mistletoe rustled, fell, and lodged in a branch below its original perch.

“Damn!” She spit the curse like a cherry pit.

She sighed. Up the tree with her, then. She swung out of her cloak and draped it on the ground. She unbuttoned her pelisse and added it to the pile. She knitted her fingers together in front of her and turned her palms away, then lifted her arms high above her head, welcoming the deep stretch of her muscles. She jumped, grabbed the lowest tree branch, and lifted a leg to curl it around the top of the branch. She hauled herself up. The branch lurched lower under her weight. The tree did not feel as steady as it looked. No matter. She would not be up here long. She set her gaze on the uncooperative mistletoe. She’d get the mistletoe herself, and then she’d get herself a husband.