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Authors: Lawana Blackwell

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BOOK: The Dowry of Miss Lydia Clark
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Again he set the basket down, this time over his own garden wall, and turned to wait for Julia. Only it was Mrs. Hayes, one of his parishioners, sitting at the reins of a runabout being drawn by a chestnut-colored bay.
Of all mornings!

“It looks like that Missus Hayes again.” Luke’s voice came from behind his shoulder, unmistakable for the whistled “s.”

“I’m afraid so,” Andrew was unable to restrain himself from saying, even while he raised a listless hand to greet his visitor.

“You should’ha stayed away a little longer, Vicar.”

Andrew turned his head to grin at the caretaker and was dismayed to receive the same look that had haunted him from other faces for most of the morning.
At my own home too?
he thought. But the trap had come to a halt, and he stepped forward to assist Mrs. Hayes as Luke took charge of the horse.

“I want you to talk with my Luther!” the woman declared before her feet had even touched the ground. She was a waspish little woman in her late forties, with hair drawn back into a severe knot under a little straw bonnet and a high-pitched, whining voice.

“Mrs. Hayes, this is not a convenient—”

“He said he was just going to deliver the morning milk to the factory…
four hours ago!
” The veins in her forehead stood out in livid ridges. “Well, sure enough, he’s been at the smithy all morning, trading lies with that other lot of slackers!”

“Now, Mrs. Hayes, just because they like to visit—”

But she continued on as if he hadn’t attempted to speak. “You don’t find me wasting time at those charity women’s teas and such nonsense!”

And they thank you for that
, Andrew thought.

“And when I went there to fetch him, he sent me away! I want you to go over there and tell him his duty is to be at home with his wife!”

“I cannot do that, Mrs. Hayes.”

She fixed Andrew with a look that would curdle milk. “Well, I don’t see why not! You’re the vicar. He listens to you.”

“Then I’ll pay a call later when he’s at home. I’ll not embarrass him in front of his friends.”

“Well, he didn’t mind sending me away in front of his friends!”

“Two wrongs don’t make a right, Mrs. Hayes.” Taking her gently by the arm, he guided her toward the runabout, which Luke had had the good sense to abandon after tying the reins. “I’ll be over this afternoon. Until then, why don’t you find a good book to read or sit in your lovely garden with a cup of tea? You’ll find Mr. Hayes will be home before you know it.”

By the indignant primp of her mouth, Andrew could tell the woman wasn’t favorable toward his advice. But she allowed herself to be assisted into her carriage. As he handed her the reins, she lifted her chin and allowed two parting remarks to drift down to him.

“Vicar Wilson would have come at once, you know. And
conducted himself with dignity!”

Wounded by the implications of both statements, Andrew watched with gaping mouth as she drove back down the lane. Then he turned and walked woodenly through the garden. He was at the door when the sound of another approaching carriage caught his ears. He turned, his heart sinking. Apparently, Mrs. Hayes had thought of more insults to fling at him.

But when he reached the bottom step, he realized that it was his wife at the reins. He hurried out to the drive. Luke appeared again from wherever he had gone to hide.

“Was that Mrs. Hayes who turned down Church Lane?” she asked as Andrew helped her from the trap. “I only saw her from the back.”

“Then you had the best vantage point, didn’t you?”

She gave him a worried look. “Oh dear.”

“It’s nothing—all that matters is that you’re home.” He held her hand as if it were spun of fine glass and thought he had never appreciated her so much. Should the whole world turn against him, here was the one person who would stand by his side, no matter what! Holding the gate open for her, he asked, “How was the meeting?”

“Very pleasant, but it went a little long.”

Feigning a shudder, he said, “That’s the trouble with meetings—they always go too long. It seems that about seventy percent of the discussion of any given subject is superfluous.”

They had reached the steps leading up to the stoop, and she paused to level her eyes at him. “Are you implying we women talk too much?”

“Not at all, dear wife. We do the same in our diocese meetings. Every minute point has to be discussed
ad nauseam
. It’s as if the vicars are paid by the…”

His voice trailed off as he realized she was not paying attention. Or rather, not to his
, for his face had her full bemused scrutiny.
Oh no!
he groaned under his breath.
Not you too!

She tapped her upper lip. “You have something…”

“Here?” he asked, touching his blond mustache.

“No, between your teeth in several places. Something dark.”

Using his tongue, he pried away something hard and round. It sent a mildly bitter taste through his mouth when he crunched it between his back teeth. “Oh.” Andrew shrugged. “Seeds. I had a slice of blackberry bread at the Worthy sisters’. I’ll clean my teeth inside.”

“You mean they actually stopped spinning long enough to offer you refreshment?”

“Well, not quite.” Taking her by the elbow, he said, “Here, careful with those steps. So tell me…how did the discussion commence about the pulpit? I want to know every word that was said.”

She gave him a sidelong look as they climbed the steps. “After what you said about meetings, don’t you think that would bore you?”

He reached for the doorknob. “I can’t think of any subject that would fascinate me more right now, Julia.”

However successful he was at steering Julia away from the unpleasant subject of his misspent morning, he could not avoid Mrs. Paget’s query after she served them bowls of wild mushroom consommé.

“Did my fig bread make it over to Mrs. Ramsey’s?” she asked.

“Absolutely, Mrs. Paget.” Though wounded at the shade of doubt in her tone, Andrew flashed her a seedless smile. “This soup is quite tasty. Do I detect fresh basil?”

She shook her head. “Thyme.” She was a graceful, thickset woman in her midfifties, with graying blond hair and fine wrinkles webbing her eyes. “Queer little woman, that Mrs. Ramsey.”

“Why do you say that, Mrs. Paget?” Julia asked.

“Why, it
thyme after all.” Andrew took another bite and smacked his lips appreciatively. “I was so certain it was basil. Not that I’m disappointed, mind you.”

For a second both women stared at him with expressions that were becoming all too familiar. “Thank you, Vicar,” Mrs. Paget said presently.

And then to Julia she replied, “Well, I had Dora nip over to
this mornin’ for lard. And she met up with Mrs. Ramsey. Only the woman was gushing on about the blackberry bread I’d sent her, telling Dora to make sure she told me it was the best she’d ever tasted.”

“Yes?” Julia shook her head. “That
a little odd. But I sometimes say one thing when I mean the other, don’t you?”

Bless you, wife!
Andrew thought. “I’ve done that countless times myself.”

“You’ll find yourself doing that more and more as you get older,” the cook conceded. “I’m forever callin’ my daughters by each other’s name.”

“And I mistook the thyme for basil,” Andrew reminded her.

“That’s so, Vicar.” Empty tray in hand, Mrs. Paget turned to leave the dining room. Only she paused at the door and turned toward them again. “Funny thing is, Dora said it looked like she had blackberry seeds in her teeth.”

Andrew met his wife’s puzzled look with a sheepish one of his own. It was so tempting to shrug his shoulders and change the subject again, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. He sighed, just as the cook was turning to the door again. “Mrs. Paget, will you please sit with us?”

She stared at him as if his brains had been coddled, for it was very likely that she had never lowered her stout form into one of the dining room chairs in her thirty-four years of service at the vicarage. “Begging your pardon, Vicar?”

Andrew rose to pull out the chair adjacent to his left and across from Julia. “Please? I have a confession to make.” He glanced at his wife again, who was observing him with a worried expression. “To both of you.”

“Very well.” She reluctantly allowed him to take the tray from her and place it at the other end of the table. When they were all seated, Andrew cleared his throat.

“I’ve not been truthful,” he said, spreading his hands upon the cloth on both sides of his bowl. He took another deep breath and dove into an account of how he had left the basket on the schoolhouse stoop, ending with his return to the vicarage with purple teeth.

He was not prepared for the reaction he received, for after a second of uncertain silence, Mrs. Paget convulsed into such violent laughter that Andrew feared she would rupture something.

“Oh, Vicar!” she exclaimed between gulps of air. “That’s rich, it is!”

Andrew turned a concerned face toward Julia and was startled to see her shoulders shaking as well. Any hope of decorum vanished, for the two women fed upon each other’s mirth and could not look at him without bursting into laughter. Finally Andrew gave up and joined them, smiling self-consciously at first, and then chuckling to the point that he had to wipe tears from his face with his napkin.

“You won’t tell anyone…will you?” he asked when Mrs. Paget finally pushed herself to her feet, jovially declaring herself almost too weak to walk.

“Why, no, Vicar,” she assured him. Her dancing eyes became shrewd. “But you know…I could use an extra day off to visit me daughters next week. Nettie just had another little boy, and of course I can’t be neglecting Myra’s little ones.”

Shock rendered Andrew speechless for several seconds. When he found his voice, it was to say, “Blackmail, Mrs. Paget?”

“Why, Vicar!” She raised a hand to her bosom and said with an injured tone, “I was going to ask you after supper tonight anyway. Just figured now would be a better time, seeing as how you’re in such a jolly mood.”

Andrew looked at Julia, who appeared suspiciously close to laughter again, and then back at the cook. “Have I ever refused you anything, Mrs. Paget?”

“Now, that you haven’t, Vicar,” she replied with a shake of her head.

“Well, take your extra day. Take two, in fact, and we’ll have our meals at the
Bow and Fiddle
while you’re gone.”

Clasping both hands together, she cried, “Oh, bless you, Vicar!”

“But I would rest more comfortably if I had your assurance that you’ll forget about what happened to that fig bread.”

“Fig bread?” Mrs. Paget took the tray from the table and raised her eyebrows innocently. “Why, yes…we do have some loaves in the cupboard, Vicar. However did you know?”



Ambrose Clay smiled at Fiona, who had just greeted him from the midst of the garden at their London townhouse.
How nice it is to come home to her
. As he reached the gate, a rustling sound drew his attention to one of the shrubberies near her. From behind it slunk a large rat with beady, malevolent eyes. Desperately Ambrose fumbled with the gate latch and tried to alert his unsuspecting wife, but his throat would not obey.


He became aware of a gentle but insistent pressure upon his shoulder. Turning his head upon the pillow, he opened his eyes. Fiona was seated upon the side of the bed, watching him. Ambrose took a deep breath and felt his racing heartbeat. “Fiona.”

She smiled, unaware that she had just snatched him from the jaws of a nightmare. “You asked me to wake you in an hour?”

“Yes.” Raising himself upon an elbow, he rubbed his eyes with his other hand. “It seems I just fell asleep.”

“Would you like to rest a little longer?”

“I don’t know if I can stand any more rest like that.”

“I beg your pardon?”

Ambrose grimaced self-consciously. “A nightmare.”

His wife combed her fingers through his dark hair. It made him feel like a small boy being comforted—not an unpleasant sensation.

BOOK: The Dowry of Miss Lydia Clark
12.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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