Excerpt from A LITTLE MISCHIEF

A Little Mischief

Isabella Winslowe saw the Earl of Colebrooke standing in the doorway looking at her with unconcealed distrust. Even with the apparent anger in his strong features, she found there was something unusually compelling in the way his gaze slid down the length of her and back up again to center on her eyes. He was assessing her physical attributes as well as her sanity.

And Isabella felt an unexpected shiver of awareness.

He walked toward her with that commanding presence that had intimidated her earlier. Now she realized she no longer feared him at all. She was intrigued by his intense dislike for her.

Amazed that she was no longer apprehensive, her self-confidence soared. Isabella relaxed and waited for the earl to speak.

"Gretchen is clearly talking out of her head, Miss Winslowe, and I canít make any sense of her words. Tell me, what is this preposterous tale you and my sister have concocted?"

"Concocted, indeed, sir. You sound as if you think I have nothing better to do with my time than to go around and spit out stories."

"Iíll reserve my judgment on that until after I hear what you have to say for yourself."

Isabella ignored his accusation. She looked up into his troubled eyes and taking a deep breath she said, "Gretchen struck a man and killed him. As we stand here wasting time, his body is lying in my back garden."

Hot denial flashed across Lord Colebrookeís face. "That is an outrageous accusation, Miss Winslowe. What kind of trickery are you up to?"

"This is no trick, my lord. Iím quite serious. Your sister hit him with a marble statue."

"Impossible," he said coldly.

"I assure you, itís true. He was lying on the ground and Gretchen was standing over him with a stone cherub in her hand when I happened upon them."

Lord Colebrookeís brow furrowed so deeply she didnít know if it was caused by rage or disbelief.

He took a step closer to her. "If there is a man, as you say, in your garden, are you sure he is dead?"

"Yes."

"And how do you know that, Miss Winslowe?"

"It was really quite chilling." She folded her arms across her chest as she remembered the way Mr. Throckmorten looked. "I shook him and tried to rouse some kind of response, but there was no life in him."

Lord Colebrookeís face hardened with suspicion. "I donít know what kind of chicanery you are up to by trying to pin this outrageous tale on my sister, but hear me now— I wonít allow you to do it."

He took another unfriendly step toward her.

Isabellaís muscles recoiled, her eyes flinched, but she stood her ground. "My lord, I swear to you, I would not do such a thing. You heard Gretchen admit she struck the man."

"Yes, but I donít know that you didnít somehow persuade her to say that."

"I wouldnít."

"What was she doing at your house?"

"I told you, I had ladies in for tea and readings, as I have done every Tuesday and Thursday afternoons for over a year."

His voice remained low but cold. "Then what in damnation was she doing in your back garden alone with a man?"

His insinuation left no doubt that he found her responsible and contemptible. Isabella couldnít allow that to bother her. She had to accept some of the responsibility because she wasnít prepared to tell him that Gretchen had admitted to arranging a meeting with Mr. Throckmorten in the garden.

"I have no answer for that, sir. You must get that information from your sister."

"Do you know who this supposed dead man is?"

"Yes, of course. I recognized him as Mr. Boswell Throckmorten."

A thick gasp blew from his throat as he whispered, "Good Lord. Are you certain of this?"

For a fleeting moment, Isabella thought she saw alarm for his sister flash across his eyes, but she couldnít be sure. She wondered why knowing the name of the man made such a difference to him.

"Positive."

"Did you alert anyone?" he asked.

"No," Isabella said, thankful that his anger had been suddenly replaced by concern, and high time. Gretchen was in trouble.

"How this is handled is up to you. I told you I immediately dismissed all the servants and sent my aunt on a foolís errand for the rest of the day so that no one would stumble upon Mr. Throckmorten. I left straight away and came here to deliver your sister and seek your instruction about what to do."

"Iíll get my coat. Weíll go to your house immediately. Wait for me by the front door, Miss Winslowe."

He turned and left the room without further word.

A few minutes later, Lord Colebrooke helped Isabella into his carriage. Even though both were wearing gloves, when she placed her hand in his Isabellaís skin tingled with pleasing warmth. Their clasp was a firm holding of hands and it was enough to cause an unexpected leap in her breath.

She sank into the plush seat for the short ride. Sheíd hoped to feel relief once she turned this unfortunate incident over to Lord Colebrooke, but so far relief had eluded her.

They were silent on the ride to her house. Isabella found herself glancing at the intriguing earl and wondering what he was thinking. She really couldnít blame him for looking at her with suspicion. The story was shocking, outrageous. She would react the same way had someone told her Auntie Pith had killed a man. Still—

The carriage stopped. Lord Colebrooke didnít wait for the footman to open the door. The earl stepped down and immediately turned back to reach for Isabella.

She placed her hand in his. This time, he clamped his fingers firmly around hers and Isabellaís pulse quickened. Most men hardly touched a womanís hand when they helped them in or out of a carriage, but there was no such wariness in this man. He boldly took hold of her, leaving her no doubt she was—in his hands.

What was there about his touch that made her breath grow short and heat rise to her face? She didnít know. She only knew she had never felt that way with any other manís touch.

As they walked toward her front door, Isabella turned to him and said, "I wasnít aware that your sister knew Mr. Throckmorten."

"I donít intend to discuss my sisterís private affairs with you, Miss Winslowe."

"Must you be so unfriendly to a lady whoís only trying to help your sister?"

"Gretchen was in your care at your home. Iíll hold you responsible for any harm that comes to her. Besides that, I donít like receiving messages that my sister was alone in your garden with a man that is now dead."

"It is not the kind of news I like to deliver. And I can assure you it did not make me happy that Gretchen chose my garden in which to strike Mr. Throckmorten."

"If you hadnít persuaded her to come to your reading group, this never would have happened."

"Persuade? I simply invited her. You, sir, cannot blame this on me. I had no idea Gretchen had such designing intentions or inclinations."

"She doesnít."

"Iíll leave her to answer that."

"And so you should. Anyone else would have taken greater care for her safety and well-being."

His words stung but Isabella would rather be stuck with sewing needles than let him know. "And I happily turn her over to your custody."

Isabella stomped through her front door with Lord Colebrooke beside her. They went straight through the house toward the rear garden. Isabella opened the back door and looked out but immediately saw that the body was not where she had left it.

This was unbelievable. She slowly walked down the four steps to the area where sheíd last seen Mr. Throckmorten and turned back to Lord Colebrooke.

Her eyes widened with shock as she whispered, "Heís gone."

"Gone?"

"The body—Mr. Throckmorten is gone," Isabella said.

Relief washed across Lord Colebrookeís face.

A LITTLE MISCHIEF
(October 2003)
Berkley; ISBN: 0425192776

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