Read A Notorious Countess Confesses (PG7) Online

Authors: Julie Anne Long

Tags: #Fiction, #Historical, #Romance

A Notorious Countess Confesses (PG7)

BOOK: A Notorious Countess Confesses (PG7)
7.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Chapter 1

SHE WAS CONFIDENT no one would ever expect to find her in a church. After all, it was too late to save her soul. It was as black, they said, as the widow’s weeds she’d shed with the same unseemly haste she’d hoisted her skirts for the Earl of Wareham. Whom she’d then killed with unseemly haste. But then, what did one expect from someone of her … origins?

This was, of course, all nonsense. Evie had worn black for precisely as long as her etiquette book (her name had been engraved in gold inside the cover—how the earl had loved his extravagances!) proscribed. She’d in fact pored over every word in that book as if they were spells that would roll away the stone blocking the door of societal acceptance.

And … well, if anything could be said to have killed the earl, it was … enthusiasm.

She’d been naïve (a word she’d first learned from an exiled French prince, who had been quite naïve to think that she’d ever been naïve). This still galled. Before she’d married the earl, she’d been certain her epitaph would read: Here lies Evie Duggan. No one ever got the better of her. After she’d married him, she’d indulged in a bit of laurel-resting and even a daydream or two: “Here lies Evie Duggan … devoted wife and mother, a more beloved woman never lived …”

Ah, and that … that had been her mistake. If not for that, she might have been able to anticipate what happened next. Reveries made one soft. She never should have forgotten that the world was on the side of the planners, not the dreamers.

At the moment, she was too weary to be terribly concerned about the color of her soul. She was unaccustomed to weariness; it sat on her like a heavy, itchy blanket.

She kept her hands piously in her lap, steepling her elegantly gloved fingers in an unconscious imitation of the ancient, squat, little church. She’d always learned by imitation. Henny, her maid, shifted uncomfortably next to her. The pews had been built centuries ago, when all men and women were smaller, which Evie supposed had made it easier to scurry into the trees and shrubbery like so many squirrels when marauders descended. Such a violent past, England had, or so she’d learned from one of the earnest bloods who’d appeared backstage at the Green Apple Theater, where her career, such as it was, had begun. He’d brought offerings of wildflower bouquets and his passion for history. This, of course, meant he hadn’t a prayer of earning more than a crumb of her attention—she was a practical girl above all else—but Evie was a great respecter of passion of any kind, and a listener, and both qualities had served her well.

The ton had turned the infamous Evie Duggan into a squirrel when the world had once been her oyster. She wasn’t here by choice, but she was certain Pennyroyal Green, Sussex, would cloak her to some degree. After all, it was home to the Everseas, one of whom had once disappeared from the gallows in an explosion and smoke before a crowd of thousands. Surely she was dull compared to that?

It was just a bloody pity the nickname the ton had foisted upon her was so irresistibly vivid.

Her life had just been yanked out from beneath her, leaving her wobbling and directionless as a spun top for the first time ever, which was perhaps what had made her susceptible to the ringing church bells as her carriage rolled through Pennyroyal Green just after the sun rose. The bells seemed to beckon, and so she’d followed. Perhaps in this new life, she’d be the sort of person who went to church, rather than the sort of person who caused other riders to topple from their horses in an attempt to get a look at her when she rode in The Row with an admirer. Perhaps the women here would be her friends since she’s recently discovered she had none, when she’d once thought she’d had dozens.

“Must you wriggle so, Henny?” she hissed.

“Beggin’ yer pardon, m’lady, but these pews are hard as a hangman’s heart and narrow as a rat’s bunghole. Me petticoat has crawled right up me ar—”

Two women in front of them swiveled to stare at them, jaws swinging wide in outrage.

They stared at Evie. In swift succession, impressions ticked over their faces, settled in, moved on: they took in the furlined pelisse, the hat that cupped her face like a lover, elegantly highlighting her cheekbones and green, green eyes. Astonishment, suspicion, envy, confusion joined the parade; at last, bald curiosity settled in.

But not, thankfully, recognition.

Evie gave them a small, serene smile.

Henny leaned over and said sotto voce to Evie, “Why, the townspeople hereabouts are so kind, my lady, to leave their mouths open to catch any flies afore they can trouble the likes of their betters.”

Their heads whipped back around to face the front of the church. One of the silk flowers atop one of the bonnets continued to shiver, as if cowed. Henny had that effect upon nearly everything.

There immediately followed a soughing sound, like wind bending meadow grass. A moment later, Evie realized it was the sound of dozens of heads turning toward the altar, of wool-covered bums shifting on polished wood.

She turned her own head.

Her first thought was: Well. He’s certainly tall for a vicar. But then Eve couldn’t recall ever before seeing a vicar in captivity—perhaps intimidating height was a requirement of the job. She was struck by the width of his shoulders, a great shelf tapering elegantly into a lean frame. In his hands rustled sheets of foolscap upon which he’d no doubt written the words meant to improve their collective souls. Bent over his notes as he was now, he looked as if he were supporting the weight of invisible wings

She could have sworn that every pair of feminine shoulders rose and fell in a sigh when the vicar looked up, a smile, faint but warm, inclusive but impersonal, ready on his face, before he dropped his gaze again to his notes. The perfect vicar smile. She’d spent enough time in a theater to admire stagecraft. She’d spent enough time with men to be cynical about all of them.

She had no use for any of them anymore. That, of a certainty, was part of her new life.

Henny, by no means shared this conviction.

“Cor!” she whispered, gripping Evie’s arm. And then slowly, “Would ye look at that bloke! ’e can warm me bed anytime ’e wants—”

Evie elbowed her hard.

“Good morning. Thank you for coming.”

Oh. His voice surprised her: a baritone with the depth of a bell and deliciously frayed at the edges, it was like stumbling into a patch of sunlight on a relentlessly gray day. Her eyes closed; the temptation was to bask in it.

Her sense of self-preservation propped her eyes open again. She’d once heard that an Eversea had fallen asleep in church, tipped forward, and cracked his chin on the pew in front of him before toppling to the floor.

She couldn’t wait to hear him say more things.

“Goats,” is what the vicar said next.

The congregation stirred—or some of it stirred—uneasily. She heard a cough that might just as easily have been a laugh.

Evie stirred, too, worried now, but still hopeful. Surely … surely she wasn’t about to be subjected to a homily about goats? Perhaps he’d said … ghosts? … instead, which would have been infinitely more interesting?

“Many of us keep the horned beasts, so we know they usually butt heads for two reasons: to play … or to assert dominance.”

Goats it was! Christ! If ever there was proof she wasn’t in London anymore, surely this was it. Somehow she’d failed to anticipate she might be tortured to death by boredom. She had a horror of boredom. She was positively gifted at avoiding it. Likely some instinct for self-preservation had kept her from churches until now.

She threw a desperate glance at the entrance. She could hardly bolt down the aisle, and she doubted she could get the big ancient door of the church open without throwing her body at it like a battering ram anyway although Henny might be able to.

But Henny appeared enraptured.

Eve swiveled back toward the altar and discovered that the sun was now high enough to shed a beam on the vicar. She was arrested: Nice bit of celestial theater, that. In his face, curves and angles seemed united for the purpose of breaking hearts: a jaw clean-edged as a blade, cheekbones that rose like battlements, between them the sort of hollows sported by poets, all deepened and defined by strategic shadow and light. It somehow contrived to be both sensitive and implacable.

Her heart could not be broken, of course, for the simple reason that it was beyond the reach of any man. But it hardly seemed necessary for a country vicar to look like that, or to have such presence, that air of calm command, that comfort in his skin. And because she knew men, she knew it was this, more than his looks, that kept all of the eyes in the room on him.

She could feel herself tensing. She suddenly felt trapped. But she was in a church, not a cell. As there was no hope for escape, she would stoically endure by watching him the way one might watch scenery unfurling outside a carriage window, and listening to his voice the way one might listen to, oh, birdsong or the sea. And for a time it worked. But Henny’s enormous thigh was flush up against hers, which was a bit like being pressed up against a hot bombazine pillow, and the same sunlight illuminating the vicar shafted through one of the austere, stained-glass windows and threw a perfect rectangle of heat on her. And she was weary, so weary. Her thoughts drifted, became diffuse.

Evie’s last thought before she fell asleep was: If he were an angel, surely he’d be the fallen sort.

She suspected he was a man with secrets, and she ought to know.

WHEN MR. ELDRED’S goat attacked Mr. Brownwell and sent him flying five feet across his garden, it had been nothing short of an answered prayer. Adam had been in a foul mood that morning, brutally gnawing his quill, slashing out flaccid, uninspired sentence after flaccid, uninspired sentence and hurling crushed wads of foolscap across the room until they stacked like snowballs against the wall. He’d thrust his hands up through his hair (it was useful to keep it a little too long for precisely this reason) and rued again his choice of the church over the military, for being shot at seemed preferable to being stared at by dozens of eyes when he had nothing, absolutely nothing to say to them on Sunday.

A typical Saturday, in other words.

But then Mr. Brownwell had stopped in at the vicarage, vibrating with outrage and gesturing at a gaping hole in the seat of his trousers. The incident (a boundary dispute, as it so happened) lit the touch paper to inspiration, and at the eleventh hour (it was always the eleventh hour) the Goat Affair evolved into a sermon about loving one’s neighbor. Granted, a few of his parishioners already did this rather too literally and quite surreptitiously. This he knew because after a year in Pennyroyal Green, many of them had begun confiding in him with something approaching abandon.

“He has a way about him,” they told each other. “Such a good man. So calming, so certain. One wants to tell him things, and he always knows just what to say. ”

He didn’t always know what to say. He sometimes had no idea what to say until a parishioner laid a trouble at his feet and looked up at him with hope—or challenge—in their eyes. In the year since he’d arrived to take up the modest living in Pennyroyal Green at the behest of his wealthy uncle, Jacob Eversea, he’d learned that his job was like carrying a torch through a long tunnel where he could only see a few feet in front of him at a time, and occasionally bats flew at him, or he stumbled across alcoves full of treasure, or just missed stepping in something foul. He felt his way through.

Fortunately, he liked surprises. Even unpleasant ones held a certain appeal, for he was secretly a conqueror by nature and the youngest of six competitive children and could in fact, on occasion, be positively bloody-minded. All of which meant he would in fact be damned if anything defeated him, whether it was his exams at Oxford or the things that mattered most to his impossible father, like shooting, or a sermon that refused to write itself, or how to make sure the impoverished O’Flaherty family who lived on the edge of town didn’t starve. Since he was a boy, he’d driven himself with a quietly cheerful mercilessness to excel. His Eversea cousins had recently discovered this quality when he had calmly, without fanfare, surprised the devil out of everyone by shooting the heart out every target in the yearly Sussex Marksmanship Contest. He took home a big silver cup and the respect of the men of Pennyroyal Green, who instantly decided they didn’t care what a vicar looked like as long as he knew his way around guns, horses, and dogs. He most certainly did.

For his arrival in Pennyroyal Green to take up the living at the vicarage had been greeted with a certain amount of skepticism. He was related to the Everseas, after all (on their mother’s side), and certainly looked like it, what with the height and the steal-your-breath looks. Both of which filled the church with parishioners on Sundays and the hearts of women with yearning, though he knew some of his parishioners half dreaded (or half hoped) he’d bound impulsively into the congregation midsermon and begin ravishing women. Not all of the Everseas had been rogues. Still, those were the ones that people tended to remember.

BOOK: A Notorious Countess Confesses (PG7)
7.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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