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Authors: Cheryl Holt

Wonderful

BOOK: Wonderful
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ISBN: 9781483530130

10 February, 1814

Evangeline,

You are reading this letter, which means I have passed on. I don’t know if you will grieve for me, but should you be so inclined, please don’t. I lived a long and full life, and I am content with my choices—as you must learn to be with yours
.

I’ve watched over you since you were a girl, and I often found it to be a burdensome trial. At this late date, I don’t say this to upset you. You’re aware of my opinion
.

You have a flamboyant character that does not suit the world in which you must live. I understand it is more natural for you to flaunt yourself, to sing and perform and have others watching and applauding. But these traits will not take you any place you would wish to be. You must seek gratification in other ways. You must learn to be happy with smaller, more pleasing pursuits
.

By now, you will have learned that I betrothed you. Your dowry has been paid and the contracts signed. I’m not sure you are suited to being a wife, but life spent as a spinster would be even worse for you
.

Your fiancé is a vicar, and a vicar’s wife is constantly busy with important tasks. In this role, there will be many chores to calm your hectic mind, and you will spend your days helping others. It will be a rewarding path for you. I am convinced of it
.

We have quarreled frequently over the years, but I will not apologize for my attempts to guide you and mold your character. Please accept the vicar and the life I selected for you. While at first, you will be vexed by my choice, I know you will ultimately find peace and contentment
.

Your mentor

Miss Peabody

CHAPTER ONE

“Will there be anything else, Miss?”

“No, no, I’m fine.”

Evangeline Etherton stood still as a statue, observing as the housemaid walked to the door, about to leave Evangeline to her own devices. A smile of joy was bubbling up, and Evangeline could barely hide it.

At the last second, the girl said, “Oh, I forgot. Cook wanted to know if it would be all right to serve your supper in the small dining room.”

“Where is it usually served?” Evangeline asked.

“Well, if Lord Run is here, he uses the larger dining room, but it’s quite big and grand. Cook felt you might rather use the smaller one.”

“The smaller one will be perfect,” Evangeline insisted, “and please tell everyone there’s no need to make a fuss. Just feed me once in a while, and I’m happy.”

The housemaid dipped a curtsy, which was very polite but completely unnecessary. “I’ll spread the word to the other servants.”

“Thank you.”

She left, and Evangeline was finally alone.

She listened as the maid’s footsteps faded down the hall, then she lifted her arms and twirled in merry circles.

The suite she’d been given was too beautiful to be believed. With sitting room, bedroom, and dressing room, it was fit for a princess. The furniture was expensive and tasteful, the wallpaper a warm shade of yellow that seemed to glow.

She might have been dropped into a fairytale.

The dressing room had a silver bathing tub, the cupboards full of plush towels and scented soaps. The entire place was so much more than she’d expected, and she’d get to stay for a whole month, but she deemed the sojourn a fair reward for what was coming after that month ended.

There was a door that led out onto a balcony, and she slipped outside to gaze at the manicured garden and rolling hills beyond. The manor was called Fox Run, and she wondered what it would be like to own such a property. She couldn’t imagine.

At age twenty-five, she’d had no prior opportunity to experience opulence. She’d been orphaned as a toddler and sent to Miss Peabody’s School for Girls. Supposedly, a kindly benefactor had paid her tuition, though Miss Peabody had refused to say who it was or why charity had been extended.

Evangeline had been reared under Miss Peabody’s watchful eye, had received a brilliant education and, after graduation, had been invited to remain as a teacher. Her skills at singing, theatricals, and playing musical instruments had guaranteed her a spot on the faculty that had included her two best friends, Rose Ralston and Amelia Hubbard.

They’d both been orphaned girls too, and had grown up with Evangeline and been hired as teachers by Miss Peabody.

But Miss Peabody had passed away, the school was closed, and their days as spinster schoolteachers were over. The next phase of their lives was just beginning.

Through the trees, she could see the steeple of the church in the village, and it was a reminder that
her
future was about to arrive, and very quickly too. She tamped down a shudder and went back inside, not eager to stare at the church and be unnerved by the sight.

She’d promised to come. She’d promised to proceed. It was too late to worry or second guess.

She was to wed Vicar Ignatius Bosworth. Miss Peabody had contracted the betrothal shortly before her death. Evangeline had never planned to marry, and didn’t actually wish to marry now, but she’d had no alternative.

She hadn’t met the vicar yet and had been provided with only a few facts about him, those contained in a one-page letter of introduction he’d personally penned.

He was forty and had two hobbies—he liked to read in front of the fire at night, and he liked to study Scripture. He’d never been wed, but was at a spot financially where he could support a wife.

In the miniature portrait he’d furnished, there’d been no attempt to enhance his features. He was balding, severe in appearance, clean shaven, and a tad gaunt.

Homely as mud
. The spiteful thought was awful, and she shoved it away.

If she’d previously fantasized about someday having a handsome, dashing husband, those were juvenile dreams and not worthy of the woman she’d become. She wasn’t fickle or immature, and she wouldn’t judge the man by his looks. She had
no
option but to marry, and she was in no position to be picky.

They’d get on fine. They would! She was fun loving and cheerful, and she made people happy with her singing and other musical talent. She’d make him happy too.

Suddenly, her pulse was racing. She tried to picture herself sitting by the fire, listening to her husband expound on obscure Bible passages, but the vision left her so anxious that she felt nauseous.

She swallowed down her burgeoning panic and hurried to the bedchamber to unpack her portmanteau. From her years under Miss Peabody’s tutelage, she knew that useful activity was the best medicine for stress and unease.

Miss Peabody had been a stickler for proper behavior, and Evangeline—with her singing and flamboyant character—had been a constant trial to the older woman. Evangeline had been scolded and punished so frequently that she’d never understood why Miss Peabody had kept her on as a teacher.

Evangeline had learned to tamp down her outbursts of gaiety, to ignore her true inclinations. She’d learned to never reflect on how ill-suited she was to the only choices available.

In a world where she was required to exhibit a modest, humble demeanor, she loved to show off and perform, and if she could have arranged the perfect future for herself, she might have been an actress on the stage in London. But of course, such a sensational path would be insane, and she could never figure out why she was overcome by such wild ideas.

She had to find a way to take her mind off her troubles, so she decided to go exploring. The manor belonged to Aaron Drake, Lord Run, a viscount who was son and heir to George Drake, Earl of Sidwell, but also a distant cousin to Vicar Bosworth.

Lord Run was rarely in the country, the house standing empty most of the time. The vicar’s mother had contacted him, and he’d agreed that Evangeline could stay at Fox Run during the month leading up to her wedding.

She was certain her duties as a country vicar’s wife would be very dreary, so during her visit, she intended to revel. She would secretly pretend the property was
hers
, would act as if she’d been born to luxury and extravagance, and she often wondered if she hadn’t been.

Occasionally, she dreamed of mansions and fancy carriages and elegant attire. Her dreams were so disturbingly real that she suspected they must have some basis in her past, which she didn’t remember.

Evangeline had had no choice but to accept her engagement, and she’d sworn to herself that she’d work hard, that she would be the best vicar’s wife who had ever lived, but she couldn’t quite believe she fit the role Miss Peabody had selected for her.

She went to the wardrobe, but she owned only a handful of clothes, so there was little to put away. Three dresses—all gray with white collars and cuffs. A nightgown. Underclothes. A wool cloak for winter. Winter boots too.

And one very pretty day dress that she’d saved for years to buy. It was a fetching violet shade that highlighted the blond of her hair and the deep sapphire of her eyes. When she wore it, she felt she was someone other than a boring spinster and schoolteacher.

She took a last look at the meager pile, having to admit that—with her marrying a vicar—it was probably all she’d ever possess. Somehow, she didn’t imagine there would be money in the household budget for frivolities such as stylish gowns.

Finished with her chore, she marched out, ready for an adventure. Such an ornate residence would have a music room filled with instruments, and she was eager to locate it.

She roamed about, poking her nose into deserted galleries and salons. It was late afternoon, and the house was very quiet, the servants likely in the kitchen and having tea. So it came as a huge surprise when a woman’s sultry laughter drifted by, when the low rumble of a man’s voice answered the woman.

Evangeline slowed and began to tiptoe, worried over who it might be. Was it Lord Run? What would it mean if he was suddenly on the premises? Could she remain a guest at Fox Run until her wedding?

Oh, she hoped so! She’d only just arrived. She would hate to have to depart so soon.

She found the pair at the end of the hall in what had to be the house’s most ostentatious suite. It was decorated with mahogany furniture, maroon drapes and rugs. Every item bespoke comfort, wealth, and pleasure. Evangeline neared and peeked through the crack in the door.

They were in the sitting room, the man lounged in a chair, the woman—very beautiful, very exotic—prancing about in front of him. With fiery auburn hair and big green eyes, she was tugging the combs from her hair, letting it fall down her back in a curly wave.

She was about Evangeline’s same height of five feet five inches and probably Evangeline’s same age of twenty-five, but the similarities stopped there.

Wearing a lush emerald gown that hugged her voluptuous figure, she was glamorous and confident in a manner Evangeline had always struggled
not
to be.

As to the man, he was incredibly handsome. Broad shoulders, flat belly, dark hair, blue, blue eyes. He had a face like an angel. Or maybe a devil. He hadn’t shaved, so his cheeks were stubbled, making him appear dashing and reckless and dangerous.

His skin was bronzed from the sun, and he was robust and vigorous. Since he was seated, it was hard to guess his height, but Evangeline suspected he’d be very tall, six feet at least. He was dressed in expensive clothes, black riding boots, tan trousers, a flowing white shirt that was open part way, providing a glimpse of his chest, and Evangeline’s innards tickled at the sight.

It was horrid to spy, but she’d never seen such a delicious male specimen and couldn’t look away.

“You want me,” the woman was saying. “You know you do. Admit it.”

“If I do or if I don’t, Florella, how can it matter?”

“Not matter!” the woman, Florella, huffed. “This has been brewing between us for an entire year. Why not get on with it? We’ll both be happier once it’s over.”

“Doesn’t Bryce have an exclusive arrangement with you? What’s he paying you
for
if not for your exclusivity?”

“He might be paying me to be his mistress,” she saucily retorted, “but he doesn’t own me, and he doesn’t pick my friends. When he’s not around, he can’t dictate who I can entertain and who I can’t.”

BOOK: Wonderful
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