Olivia Gardener is the toast of London. Charismatic and beautiful, she can command the attention of every man in the room—except the one she wants. But when a risqué wager threatens to end in scandal, will her old friend prove she already has his heart and save her from her own folly?
Miss Olivia Bellatrix Gardener was in the mood to behave badly. It was a mood she knew well, for she was a fickle creature of mercurial temper. That was a known fact of her character.
In fact, it was part of her charm. And she was quite charming. Everyone thought so. With rare exception, none of them notable, people liked Olivia. Well. Men liked Olivia. Some women found her antics amusing and some found them inspiring, while others were jealous of her admirers, her beauty, her confidence, her…impunity.
Olivia did not much care for the opinions of those women. They could not control her entrée into the drawing rooms and salons of London so long as she did not step beyond the bounds of acceptably high spirits. Olivia knew that line within an inch, and she walked it about that closely. But as long as she was on the right side of it, the women did not matter. The men mattered. They had the titles. They had the power. They had the right to choose—and they chose her. They liked her. They liked the heavy blonde hair she knew how to toss just so, and the green eyes that glowed with enthusiasm or mischief, because Olivia had only two moods: delight or bedevilment.
She was never sure what brought about the latter, but it had ruled her since she was a child. She was helpless to deny it and rarely tried.
Olivia could not, in point of fact, remember ever trying to resist misbehaving once the mood to make trouble struck her. Surely there must have been times when, as a child, she had thought better of one or another of her schemes…but she could not recall the occasion now. What she remembered instead were the innocent capers of a high-spirited girl—taking her father’s hunter for a ride and leading half the grooms he employed on an hour-long chase. Stealing a jug of hard cider before Twelfth Night and spending her twelfth birthday getting roaring drunk. “Falling” out of the boat on a lazy lake outing because she’d accidentally seen Viscount Mabry’s son, Francis, swimming the day before and had wanted to try it for herself.
Her punishments had never been severe enough to curb her behavior. They had taken the form of extra lessons, usually, so Olivia was set to reading books her twin didn’t have to and plunking at the pianoforte for hours more than Viola played her harp. But their governess had to discuss the books with Olivia to be sure she had read them, and extra music lessons meant extra praise when she played well. She hadn’t been allowed to ride for three months after the hunter incident, but when the privilege was reinstated it came with a new horse, one energetic enough to keep her busy during a ride so she wouldn’t feel the need to take out one of her father’s horses because her own placid pony “bored” her.
Between the lack of significant consequences and the almost compulsive grip of her mischievous moods, Olivia had never found a reason to fight them. Perhaps if she had any real notion of what caused them, even, she might have resisted better. But the smallest things could cast her into that hell-bent mindset.
Tonight, for example. Olivia had no idea what had turned her mood. There she was, on her way downstairs, excited and glowing with enthusiasm for the Twelfth Night masquerade—also her nineteenth birthday celebration—the first one dressed and mad with impatience for the festivities to start. Then she had heard her father’s voice, and after just a few eavesdropped words she had noticed how much her shoes pinched and how the edge of her domino cloak was scratching her arm and how a pin was digging into her scalp intolerably. Suddenly she almost hadn’t even wanted to go to her own party. Her delight in the evening ahead vaporized under the heat of discomfort and petulant dissatisfaction, and it sent her back up the stairs in a pout over her hair.
“What is it, darling?” her mother asked when Olivia burst into her dressing room. Anne Gardener sat at her vanity while her abigail coiled and twisted her hair into a dozen or more ropey strands. Mrs. Gardener was masquerading as Medusa, complete with fake snakes that attached to her headband and kohl-darkened lips.
“There is a pin stabbing into my scalp most distractingly. Millie will need to re-dress it,” Olivia lied. Exaggerated. There really was a pin stuck a bit too hard into her hair. It was just one that she likely could have adjusted herself without damage to her coif…but if she had done that, then she’d have had to stay downstairs.
“Francis, you know we have discussed this before, and we both thought it best to wait a bit longer. But I no longer see the need for delay. Viola has not shown a particular interest in any man this year. She has not shown a particular interest in men, period. I see no reason for you to put off your suit any longer. It is my hope, in fact, that you will make your offer presently.”
Her father’s words of but a few moments past.
Olivia did not want to be downstairs for their consequences.
“You’ll have to wait until I am dressed,” her mother decreed. “Arthur was expecting me down—” She turned her head just slightly, just enough to read the clock out of the corner of her eye. “—five minutes ago.”
Olivia sulked, exactly as her mother expected her to for being made to wait. Anne had no idea, of course, that Olivia had reasons for wanting to wait. For dragging her feet about attending her own party.
Olivia tried to think about why that was as she watched Millie’s deft hands tie off yet another braid of Anne’s long, light brown hair. Olivia and Viola’s hair, too—fine and slightly waved, too golden to be a true brown and too dark to be a true blonde. Perfect English hair, to complement the creamy perfection of their rosy skin. His English rose garden, Arthur liked to call them.
Why his pronouncement to Viscount Mabry should have soured her mood, Olivia did not know. It was nothing she hadn’t expected since she and Viola came out last spring. Francis had been expected to marry Viola for two years or more, after all, waiting only her formal debut and a nominal chance to peruse her options.
Not that Viola had taken the chance. She was a veritable wallflower, while Olivia was the reigning queen of the debutantes. In truth, Olivia felt a little bit sorry for her sister. She hadn’t really become acquainted with any other man, which meant she would marry Francis without knowing if there might be someone else she would prefer. And Francis was—well, Francis was Francis. It was a little difficult for Olivia to judge him as the world must, because she had known him her whole life, or close to it. He was the family friend, older, wiser, and childhood hero to both girls. Olivia had looked up to him just as Viola had—but he had only ever tried to play that part for Viola. It was a heroism that came at the cost of painting Olivia as the villain. In his eyes she had been too reckless, too rash, too headstrong, and Francis had wanted to protect her sister. From her.
Viola had never complained about where Olivia led her. Francis was the only one who seemed to mind….
Want to know more? Twelfth Night is available now through these fine ebook retailers: