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Authors: Cheryl Holt

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BOOK: Wonderful
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Her flush deepened as she recollected that Miss Bernard was Bryce Blair’s…
mistress
. They were a strange and decadent pair, and Evangeline wondered what the other guests would say if they knew the truth.

Evangeline wanted to shun them, but was confused about what her feelings should be. Lord Run was great chums with Mr. Blair and wasn’t bothered by Miss Bernard’s loose morals. If he wasn’t concerned, was it any of Evangeline’s business?

“Let me apologize to you,” Miss Bernard quietly beseeched.

“There’s no need,” Evangeline said. “I was spying when I shouldn’t have been, and I have no right to protest what goes on under Lord Run’s roof.”

“I would hate to have you think poorly of me.”

“I don’t,” Evangeline lied.

She hadn’t precisely settled on an opinion. Miss Bernard was a contradiction in terms. She was a famous actress and doxy, which should have indicated coarse character, but she had very gracious manners, was extremely charming, and had carried on a pithy conversation at the dining table. Only Evangeline had been aware of her more sordid propensities.

How could so many disparate traits be encapsulated in one woman?

“Aaron tells me you’ll be at Fox Run while we’re here,” Miss Bernard said.

“Well, I’m not sure. The vicar doesn’t believe it’s appropriate for me to remain now that Lord Run is in residence.”

“Nonsense. Of course you’ll stay, and I hope we’ll be friends. I hope you can overlook our little…difficulty.”

“There was no real harm done,” Evangeline told her, for she was a kind person and didn’t like to denigrate or hold grudges.

“Aaron also tells me that you’re quite an accomplished singer.”

“Lord Run said that?” Evangeline was secretly delighted that they’d discussed her.

“Yes, he was bowled over by you. My maid was too. Apparently, the whole house is agog.”

“I can’t imagine why.”

“Will you sing for us this evening? These rural parties can get so dreary.”

“I don’t know if I should.”

Evangeline glanced over at Vicar Bosworth. He and his mother were seated together on a love seat. There was an empty chair next to the vicar, and Evangeline probably should have joined them, but she couldn’t bear the notion.

In their meeting earlier in the day, Widow Bosworth had been positively horrid, her dislike of Evangeline practically oozing from every pore.

Oh, what was she to do? She wished there was an older and wiser female who could advise her. Should she refuse the match?
Could
she refuse it? Could she say they were completely wrong for one another? Was that a valid reason to cry off?

She had no idea and was new in the community. If she breathed a word about her concerns, gossip would eventually find its way to the vicar and his mother, which would make the situation even more awful.

“If you don’t sing tonight,” Miss Bernard said, “then you must swear you’ll sing for me tomorrow.”

“I will.”

That might have been the end of it but, suddenly, Lord Run entered the room, with several people following him in. He clapped his hands to get everyone’s attention.

“I have a treat for you,” he announced. “My home has been graced with an amazing talent. I’m planning to prevail on her to entertain all of you.”

It took Evangeline a moment to realize he was talking about
her
. She was peering around, trying to see who would step forward, when she noticed him grinning.

“Me?” she gasped.

“Yes, you. You can sing for the servants. Surely you can sing for my guests.”

There were general murmurs of
yes
and
please
.

Evangeline wasn’t certain how to reply. Again, she peeked over at the vicar and his mother. They were whispering and scowling.

She was wearing her good violet dress, and she’d found a matching peacock feather in the yard. It was stuck in her hair so—in light of her having donned stylish gown and feather—she’d likely pushed the boundaries as far as she could with the Bosworths for one evening.

“Maybe I shouldn’t, Lord Run,” she mumbled.

“Don’t be silly.”

He clasped her arm and led her to the corner where there was a harpsichord and a pianoforte. He gestured to the two instruments.

“Which do you prefer?” Evangeline was anxiously assessing them when he said, “Actually, I have a better idea. How about if we have Bryce play the piano, and
you
simply sing. That way, you can more easily dazzle us.”

“Mr. Blair plays the piano?”

“Not as well as you, but he can probably stumble through.” Lord Run stared over at his friend. “Can’t you, Bryce?”

Mr. Blair bustled forward, and he was smiling at Evangeline. “I’ll try my best, but from how Aaron has been gushing about you, I doubt I’m proficient enough.”

“You’ll be fine,” Evangeline insisted, deciding to agree.

And why shouldn’t she? Lord Run was her host, and he was begging her to proceed. Mr. Blair was already seated on the piano bench and gazing at her expectantly. If she refused, she’d seem like a spoiled fusspot.

The vicar might be upset, but perhaps—once he heard her—he’d let her bring music into his quiet, dreary home. He’d be happier for it. She was sure he would be.

“Sit down in the front row, Lord Run,” she said. “I’d be honored to sing for you and your guests.” She turned to Mr. Blair and asked, “How did you learn to play? Did you study with a teacher?”

“I always knew how. It just came naturally to me.”

“To me as well.”

“We both have a gift for music.”

“Let’s hope we can confirm Lord Run’s opinion that everyone will be dazzled.”

He laughed, and they had a quick conference where they discovered they had the same favorite songs.

As she spun away from him, he winked and, for the briefest instant, her breath caught in her chest. He looked so much like her—with his blue eyes and blond hair—and for some reason the similarities disturbed her.

Her ears were ringing, a wave of vertigo rocking her, and she frowned, trying to figure out why she was suffering such a strange reaction. But he nodded encouragingly, and as the introductory chords sounded, she straightened and faced the crowd.

Her disorientation faded, and she tumbled into the song, singing for Lord Run who thought she was wonderful. Singing for Miss Bernard who’d heard she was grand. Singing for Mr. Blair whom she knew to be very dissolute, but who seemed to be very kind. Singing for Lord Run’s guests so they would be pleased. And she sang for herself because she loved it and was flattered to have been asked.

When she finished, the audience clapped and clapped and demanded she continue. She ended up performing ten pieces, which was all she and Mr. Blair could manage together. Mr. Blair was the first to rush up, and he squeezed her hand.

“Marvelous, Miss Etherton. Simply marvelous. Thank you for permitting me to accompany you.”

“You were quite amazing yourself, Mr. Blair.”

He winked again, the gesture jogging a distant memory that made her feel dizzy and bewildered. But before she could reflect on it, others hurried up. Miss Bernard hugged her but was swiftly shoved out of the way so neighbors could introduce themselves and shower Evangeline with praise.

People exclaimed their delight that she had arrived to wed the vicar, how she would enliven the parish with her pretty charm, with her merry nature. They kept repeating how lucky Ignatius Bosworth was to have settled on her.

Gradually, the crowd thinned, and she turned to find the vicar standing next to her. As opposed to everyone else who’d been cordial and excited, he was his usual, stilted self. If he had any opinion about her recital, it was meticulously concealed.

“Would you care to walk in the garden, Miss Etherton?” he said. “You must be overheated.”

She could think of nothing more horrid, but couldn’t decline. Guests were furtively watching them, judging them as a couple, and no hint of her dislike could show.

She focused her smile on the vicar. “Yes, it is hot in here. I would love to walk outside.”

She took his arm, and they meandered through the rooms, chatting with parishioners as they passed. They received many congratulations, many questions as to how the engagement had come about. Evangeline didn’t have answers to their queries, so she let the vicar offer all the replies.

She studied him during each exchange, and he was awkward with everyone—so it wasn’t just her. He possessed an odd temperament for someone who’d decided to be a vicar. His profession would constantly push him into contact with others who were in dire situations. Funerals. Unexpected deaths. Grave illnesses. He didn’t have a sympathetic manner, but perhaps that was why he’d chosen her to be his wife.

She genuinely liked people, and in their marriage she would deliver the qualities he lacked.

Finally, they escaped onto the rear verandah. The garden paths were lit with lanterns that made the space appear enchanted; it might have been a prince’s castle in a fairytale.

They went down the stairs and strolled along, not speaking, when she noticed someone was behind them. She glanced back to see his mother. Evangeline wanted to scowl with exasperation, but managed to restrain herself.

“Hello, Mrs. Bosworth,” Evangeline said, but the woman merely nodded and didn’t respond.

“I asked Mother to accompany us,” the vicar explained. “As we’re not yet wed, we shouldn’t be alone in the garden.”

“I’ve been on my own for many years, Vicar, and we are betrothed. I doubt anyone would mind if we were alone.”


I
would mind,” he sternly said. “I have a reputation in the community to uphold.”

“Yes, of course.”

“I regularly preach about immorality. It would hardly be appropriate for me to exhibit unseemly conduct.”

“I understand.”

Suddenly, she felt as if she was choking, as if she was in Miss Peabody’s office and about to be lectured for an infraction. It dawned on her that—in a way—Miss Peabody had picked an exact copy of herself to be Evangeline’s fiancé.

When Miss Peabody had been dying, she’d written that letter to Evangeline where she’d insisted Evangeline needed the guidance and restrictions that marriage to the vicar would bring. She’d insisted it would tamp down Evangeline’s normal ebullience.

Apparently, Evangeline had escaped the school only to wed a male version of Miss Peabody! The notion was so depressing!

They arrived at a dark spot in the garden, and they were away from the house where there was no one to overhear. The vicar stopped and pulled away from Evangeline.

“I must speak with you about your behavior,” he said.

“My behavior?”

“Your singing.”

He pronounced the word
singing
as if it was an epithet, as if she’d been cursing and stripping off her clothes in front of Lord Run’s guests.

“What about it?” Evangeline inquired.

“You are not to flaunt yourself ever again. I can’t imagine what sorts of liberties you were allowed by Miss Peabody, but they won’t be tolerated by me.”

“It was just singing, Vicar Bosworth. I was the music and theatrics teacher at the school. Performance has been my whole life.”

“It wasn’t
just
singing, and you know it, Miss Etherton. You enjoy making a spectacle of yourself. You enjoyed how others were watching.”

“Lord Run asked it of me. It would have been rude to refuse.”

“I will mention the incident to him.”

“Please don’t. It would embarrass me.”

“Well,
I
am already embarrassed, Miss Etherton. By you!”

“Everyone said I was very good. Why would you be embarrassed?”

“You deliberately sought attention, and you relished the applause. You are overly proud, Miss Etherton, and vanity is a great sin.”

“I wasn’t being proud or vain,” she claimed, though she absolutely had been.

“You can’t act so outrageously. It does not bode well for how you envision your role as my wife. You need to come to grips with how your situation will be reduced.”

“How will my situation be reduced?”

“I will not permit public displays by you, and if you insist on it, there will be consequences. You must learn this lesson right from the start.”

What did he mean? Would he beat her? Would he send her to bed without supper? Perhaps he’d simply lock her in a room with his mother and that would be a torment beyond imagining.

She glanced over at a glowering Widow Bosworth. Had it been her idea to scold Evangeline? Or had the vicar thought of it on his own? Had Mrs. Bosworth trotted along, gleeful at the prospect of seeing Evangeline chastised?

A wave of fury bubbled up inside Evangeline, and anything might have happened, but—luckily—Lord Run blustered up.

“Miss Etherton, there you are! I’ve been searching everywhere.” He was smiling, happy, but as he noted their dour faces, he staggered to a halt. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing,” Evangeline mumbled, as the vicar said, “Miss Etherton and I were discussing a personal matter.”

“What personal matter?” Lord Run demanded.

Mrs. Bosworth piped up. “It’s a trifle, Cousin Aaron, and naught with which you need concern yourself.”

Lord Run glared at her, at the vicar. “Miss Etherton is a guest in my home. If it concerns her, it concerns me.”

Vicar Bosworth straightened his shoulders and announced, “If you must know, I’m upset by her singing in public. As she’s just being introduced to the parish as my fiancée, it wasn’t a fitting reflection of the type of relationship we’ll want to exhibit to the community.”


I
asked her,” Lord Run reminded the vicar.

Mrs. Bosworth responded with, “Ignatius was flattered by your request, but he simply feels that she should have obtained his permission before she proceeded.”

Lord Run frowned. “Miss Etherton is not a child, Gertrude. I hardly think she should be treated like one.” He turned his incensed gaze on the vicar. “Speak for yourself, Cousin Iggy, without your mother speaking for you.
I
presumed on Miss Etherton’s good nature, and she graciously obliged me, so why are you standing here in my garden berating her?”

The vicar’s cheeks flushed with rage. Lord Run was enraged too, and Widow Bosworth matched them in ire.

BOOK: Wonderful
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