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Authors: Cheryl Holt

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BOOK: Wonderful
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“I have no idea. I’m an orphan and was a charity case at school. I have no information about them, but I suppose I must have inherited my talents from them.”

Aaron wondered which was worse, to never have known one’s parents? Or to know them and realize you possessed all their same foibles and flaws?

He leaned his elbows on the box of the instrument, and it placed him very close to her.

“Play something just for me,” he insisted.

“I couldn’t. I’d be too embarrassed.”

“Why is that? Can you only perform for the servants? Is that the audience you prefer?”

“No. I just…just…” She halted, shrugged, then said, “You make me too nervous.”


I
make you nervous? Why would I?”

“I want you to think I’m good.”

“Trust me, I think you’re very,
very
good.”

“Do you mean it?”

She inquired tentatively, as if she wasn’t sure of her ability, as if maybe she’d been denigrated for it in the past.

“Yes, Miss Etherton, I’m bowled over by you.”

“You’re being serious? You’re not jesting?”

“I’m not jesting.”

She graced him with her beautiful smile. On seeing it, his heart actually lurched in his chest.

“And you’re not angry?”

“No.”

“I’d hate to have you be cross with the servants because of me.”

“While you are my guest, you may perform in any fashion and at any volume you like.”

“What if I keep luring the servants from their duties, and they don’t serve you a brandy fast enough? Won’t you be irked?”

“With you and that voice in my home? You must be joking. I haven’t heard a singer as grand as you in any of the theaters in London.”

“That’s the sweetest thing you could have told me.”

“Have you ever considered singing on the stage?”

“I dreamed about it when I was younger, but of course, I eventually grew up and had to accept that it’s not a suitable path for a woman.”

“It’s the very dickens, isn’t it, being an adult?”

“Yes, the very dickens,” she agreed.

She leaned her elbows on the box too, so there was hardly an inch of space between them. She scrutinized him, as if she didn’t know what to make of him. Was he an enigma? He’d like to imagine he was, although the truth was that—for all his pomp and circumstance—he was very dull and ordinary.

Very quietly, very surprisingly, she said, “I like you. I probably shouldn’t, but I do.”

“I like you too, Miss Etherton. Very much.”

They stared and stared, a thousand comments swirling that couldn’t be spoken aloud. A strange wave of destiny swept over him, as if it was his fate to have met her, as if they were supposed to find themselves alone in this very spot.

Before he realized his intent, he closed the gap separating them and kissed her. In the entire history of kisses, it was very brief, very chaste. And very, very
wrong
.

She was his houseguest—his
engaged
houseguest—who was betrothed to his cousin. So what was Aaron thinking? He wasn’t thinking; that was the problem.

For the fleetest moment, she allowed the contact, then she jumped back. If she’d slapped him, he’d have deserved it, but he was relieved to see that she was smiling.

She wagged a scolding finger at him. “You shouldn’t have done that.”

“No, I shouldn’t have.”

She paused, apparently waiting for him to apologize, but he didn’t because he wasn’t sorry. He wanted to kiss her again. He wanted to drag her over to the sofa, lie down with her, and kiss her until dawn.

He was being pummeled by a confused sort of yearning he didn’t understand. Once again, there were a thousand comments swirling, and he clamped his teeth together, terrified he might open his mouth and blurt out any wild, inappropriate remark.

“Say good night, Lord Run,” she said.

“Good night, Lord Run.”

She laughed, the sound sultry and alluring and extremely dangerous to his equilibrium.

“Go.” She pointed to the door.

“You first.”

She studied him for an eternity, then nodded. “Yes, me first. I definitely think I’d better.”

She scooted around him and left.

CHAPTER THREE

“What do you think?”

“Your home is lovely.”

“I suspected you’d like it.” Vicar Bosworth pompously preened. “It has to be much grander than that school where you were teaching.”

“Yes, it’s much nicer.”

Evangeline forced a smile, mustering every bit of fortitude she possessed so she’d appear composed and happy.

The rectory was a fine house, much larger than she’d anticipated. The rooms were a tad dark and drab though, the furnishings older and worn, the wallpaper peeling in the corners.

Don’t be so picky!
She could have ended up in many places that were much worse, such as a ditch or a hovel in the woods.

Because she was staying at Fox Run, she was viewing every detail through the wrong lens, comparing the rectory to Lord Run’s mansion. And she was comparing Vicar Bosworth to Lord Run too—when she shouldn’t. Such evaluations would only lead her down a very unsatisfactory road.

She and the vicar were in his front parlor. He’d just given her a tour of the residence and grounds. The church and cemetery were next. They’d stopped for tea before continuing on.

Their interactions were awkward, their conversation stilted and difficult, which was very odd for Evangeline. Typically, she was chatty and pleasant and liked to meet new people, but the vicar was quite grouchy and taciturn, and she hadn’t figured out how to lure him into a better mood.

Whenever he thought she wouldn’t notice, he’d surreptitiously study her. From his furious frowns, it was clear he didn’t like her.

She sighed. An arranged marriage was always a dicey proposition, but what was a potential bride to do if her potential husband developed an immediate dislike? The prospect was aggravating in the extreme.

Perhaps it was her gray dress. The shade wasn’t flattering on her. It washed out the color of her hair and skin so she looked wan and pale, so maybe he was worried she was sickly or feeble. She wanted to point out that she wasn’t ailing, but she had no idea what topics were appropriate for their first encounter.

“You don’t have a harpsichord or any other musical instruments,” she said. “How do you pass the time in the evenings? Do you play or sing, Vicar Bosworth?”

“No, and I don’t enjoy frivolity. Music is a distraction that diverts me from my higher pursuits.” He made a waffling motion with his fingers. “The devil’s handiwork and all that.”

“Music is the devil’s handiwork? Is that what you mean?”

“I assume you received my letter of introduction, Miss Etherton.”

“Yes.”

“Then you know I read Scripture in the evenings. I wouldn’t care to have my contemplation interrupted by caterwauling.”

“Yes, I understand how that would create problems for you.” She concealed her dismay. If she couldn’t play and sing to calm her mind, how would she carry on? “Thank you for writing to me. I actually wasn’t aware that I’d been betrothed, and when I learned about it, the news was a shock. Your letter went a long way toward alleviating my concerns.”

She forced another smile, thinking he might smile too, that he might admit he was nervous, but he didn’t. He glowered at her.

“How was the betrothal a shock?” he asked.

“Miss Peabody, who owned the school, was gravely ill, and as her health failed, she had told me I would receive a bequest from her.” She chuckled. “Silly me, I expected it to be monetary.”

“Monetary?”

“Yes, it
was
money, but she used it as my dowry. She thought I should have a chance to marry and have a family of my own.”

“I see.”

“How about you? How did you meet Miss Peabody?”

“Lord Sidwell mentioned her to me. He knew I planned to take a bride this year.” He puffed himself up. “I presume you’ve heard of Lord Sidwell? George Drake, of the Sidwell Drakes?”

“Yes, I’ve heard of him.”

“We’re cousins. He and I are
very
close.”

“How lucky for you.”

“So I’m sure you realize that—despite my lowly position in the church—I come from very elevated stock.”

Evangeline fought to maintain a serene expression.

As far as she could tell, Vicar Bosworth wasn’t close to the Drakes at all. He didn’t seem to know that Aaron Drake had arrived at Fox Run. Nor had Lord Run shared any glowing comments about Vicar Bosworth. If memory served, Lord Run had described the vicar as being
all right
.

High praise indeed.

She didn’t like conceit or pretentious behavior and couldn’t bear the vicar’s bragging. His mother’s cousin had married another Drake cousin, so the connection was tenuous at best, but he’d boasted of the relationship a dozen times already. The more he harangued, the more irked she became.

It was as if he was trying to convince himself—rather than her—that he was important, which indicated a lack of self-esteem. What bride would want a husband lacking in confidence? Not her, certainly.

Stop it!
she chided, and she assessed him, searching for some hint that there could be future affection between them, but there wasn’t one. He was an effeminate fellow, his gestures and bodily movements lacking in manly vigor. But then if masculine qualities were missing, so too would be the anger and temper that some husbands were wont to display.

Still, she couldn’t help but remember the talks she’d had as a girl with Rose and Amelia. They’d often discussed the handsome swains and dashing libertines they’d someday wed. Princes and dukes and pirates and highwaymen. None of those dreams had ever included a fussy, grumpy vicar.

Not for the first time, she wondered about Miss Peabody. While growing up under the older woman’s caustic eye, Evangeline had struggled and suffered as she’d worked to tone down her natural exuberance and enthusiasm. According to Miss Peabody, nearly every trait Evangeline possessed was a bad one that had to be moderated and restrained.

Yet despite their differences, she’d always thought Miss Peabody had liked her—at least a little—but now she had to accept that Miss Peabody probably hadn’t liked Evangeline at all.

Rose had been betrothed to a rich, landed gentleman and would be mistress of a huge estate. Amelia had been betrothed to Lord Run’s brother, Lucas Drake. So Amelia would marry an earl’s son, a viscount’s brother. But with the same swipe of a pen, Miss Peabody had betrothed Evangeline to Vicar Bosworth, a poor relative of the Drakes and not a very pleasant or interesting one at that.

What was Evangeline to make of such a slight? Had Miss Peabody ever spoken to Vicar Bosworth? If so, what would have led her to believe Evangeline should be his wife?

The question boggled the mind.

What should she do? Vicar Bosworth had paid her coach fare to travel to Fox Run, and Evangeline had agreed to the match, had signed legal papers and everything. The dowry had been tendered, and from how Vicar Bosworth had preened over the new carriage he’d shown her in the barn, a substantial portion of the money had likely been spent.

Evangeline had nowhere to go, no family to take her in, and her two friends—Rose and Amelia—were off to their own weddings. Evangeline could hardly pop up on their doorsteps, begging their spouses for charity.

“Cousin Aaron has arrived.”

“What?” she stammered, having been lost in her miserable reverie.

“My cousin is at Fox Run. He doesn’t usually visit in the summer. Have you met him?”

“Yes, he introduced himself.”

“He’s invited me to supper.”

“That’s kind of him.”


Kind,
yes, but definitely expected. I
am
the vicar in the community after all. I should be first on any guest list.”

“Yes, absolutely.”

“We may have to move you though.”

She scowled. “What do you mean?”

“You are my fiancée, and with the banns just being called, it’s over a month until our wedding. It’s not appropriate for you to stay at the manor while Lord Run is in residence.”

Her heart sank. She loved the beautiful house, her pretty bedchamber, and Lord Run fascinated her. He was so worldly and sophisticated.

He’d kissed her in the music room! He shouldn’t have, and she shouldn’t have let him, but it had occurred so fast there’d been no time to stop him.

It had left her all jumbled inside, and she’d tossed and turned all night, had staggered out of bed grumpy and confused. She’d wanted to track him down and demand an explanation. Considering that she was at Fox Run to wed his cousin, she’d behaved reprehensibly, but she didn’t feel sorry or ashamed for having participated.

She peeked at the vicar, suffering from the strongest urge to blithely confess the indiscretion, so she wondered if the entire ordeal of marrying wasn’t driving her a bit mad.

“Why would I have to leave Fox Run?” she asked. “It’s a very large place. I doubt I’ll ever see him.”

“It’s not appropriate, Miss Etherton!”

There was a sense of finality in his words that informed her she daren’t argue the point.

“Whatever you think is best,” she murmured, which she didn’t believe at all.

“I’ll speak with my cousin after the meal. We’ll decide what’s to be done with you.”

“I’m sure you’ll come up with a fine plan.”

“Of course I will. Where you are concerned, I shall always guide you on the proper path.”

She took a deep breath, recognizing that she was about at the end of being able to keep a smile on her face.

There was nothing timid or humble about her character, and if the vicar viewed her as a meek mouse, in constant need of his supervision and direction, there were some very grueling years ahead for both of them.

“Now then”—he dabbed at his lips with his napkin and stood—“I have a surprise for you.”

“I love surprises. What is it?”

“It’s time for you to meet Mother.”

“I was hoping we’d be introduced.”

“She’ll live with us.”

“Ah…she will?”

“She had one of her sick headaches today, so she’s up in her room, but she’s waiting for us.”

“Is she ill often?”

BOOK: Wonderful
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