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 callingyou!”

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, twofigures.

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 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 reached 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 upat Charles.

But then, that was the way of the marquess. Capable of commanding with a single look. Of ruling all. Particularly 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 loud 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 was left attempting to explain even the simplest jest to the staid, humorless, duty-driven marquess. Betrothed as children, the pair had been married forever, and known one another 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?” 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, and then the second branch. “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 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,” his father mumbled once more, and with a last glare for Charles, 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 fifteen 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 a sideways look, searching for a sign that his mother was jesting, because surelyshe 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 jest.

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 and perched himself fifteen feet above them.

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 whom he had always thought did value his opinion and would let him have a say in his future. “You are really going to make me do this?”

“Oh, Charles,” she murmured with such pity and regret that they served as answers enough. She moved closer to him, and he reached out a hand to steady her, to make sure she didn’t go tumbling below and break her neck and destroy this day even further.

His mother, however, waved him off. She wrapped her arms over his shoulders and lightly hugged him. “The truth is, Charles, sometimes we have to do things we do not want to.”

“Like marry the Gately girl?” he spat, vitriol pulling that surname from deep within his chest, from a place where resentments would forever dwell.

“Like marry the Gately girl,” she confirmed, giving no indication that she’d heard his hate-filled tone and disallowing him even that small satisfaction of her acknowledging those feelings. “Furthermore, I would be remiss if I did not point out that I think she perfectly suits you.”

And he managed the impossible that day. Charles burst out laughing, that amusement so unexpected and fulsome that he was the one who lost his balance, and the only thing that kept him on his perch was his mother’s quick and steady hand.

Except she winged an eyebrow and gave him a long look, confirming she hadn’t been speaking in jest.

“My God, you are serious,” he choked out.

“Well, I’m not your god, just your mother. But I am sincere. Very much so. You should have a care, Charles; she may be a child, but as I said, she won’t always be. The little ducks grow up and become swans. Though also remember swans, too, are capable of flight. As such, you would do well to not stray so far from the pond.”

Charles puzzled his brow. What in thunderation was she talking about?

Leaning over, she pressed a kiss to his cheek. “If you are clever and wise and honorable, you’ll be fortunate to never know what I mean. Now, how much time?”

“An hour?”

She shook her head. “I cannot manage that.”

“Thirty minutes?” he asked.

“Twenty.” She reached over and brushed back a damp strand that had fallen over his brow. “And another twenty to see yourself presentable,” she murmured, ever so lovingly and tenderly adjusting his rumpled cravat, perfectly fixing the folds, and smoothing the lapels of his jacket. Then with the same impressive ease with which she had scaled the tree, his mother found her way down, and lifting her hems, she headed off to meet her husband. The pair spoke for several moments. Or rather, his mother did. His father listened, periodically nodding. Raising her knuckles to his mouth one at a time, he placed a kiss upon her hands before they took their leave.

Charles stared on at them, walking hand in hand; it was a relationship he’d never understand. Because there couldn’t be two people more different than his parents: his mother, warm and nurturing and loving. And then there was . . . his father. Charles’s father, who spent most of his days in his office with a magnifying glass in hand as he read whatever ledgers or books a man such as him bothered with. Still, for all the differences between the Marquess and Marchioness of Rochester, for some unexplainable reason Charles would never understand, his mother not only lovedthe surly marquess but was also happy. Blissfully so.

He scrunched up his mouth. His mother and father together, and their happiness, was a riddle he’d never solve, and one he didn’t even care to.

Perhaps, though, that was why she expected Charles should find himself like her.

But he wasn’t. He never would be. Because unlike her, he would forever be filled with resentment and anger at that which they had forced him to do.

At last, his parents’ figures disappeared from his view, and Charles began to count. He counted the seconds as they became minutes. The moment he reached the agreed-upon twentieth minute, he waited another second, allowing himself that control, and climbed back down.

The moment his feet hit the ground, he donned his shoes, then started on the same path his mother and father had when a figure in the near distance snagged his notice. Her tiny frame clad in ridiculously large-for-her skirts, her golden hair limp around her face, the child stood amidst a small army of mute swans. In her white garments, she nearly perfectly blended in with those creatures that filled his family’s lake.

However, it was not the sight of either her skirts or the swans that struck him.

It was . . . her stare.

Even with the twenty paces between them, there could be no disputing the fiery anger in the girl’s eyes. Burning, blazing hatred that he knew all too well. But somehow more . . . striking . . . when seeing it reflected back in the gaze of a six-year-old girl.

Charles gave his head a disgusted shake. His mother had spoken of his wedded bliss someday.

With that hellion?

Cursing to himself, Charles began the trek back to the manor, where he’d sign the betrothal documents binding himself forevermore to a child bride.

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