T he gifts that the Good Lord had granted to Charles Everhart Blyth Compton, younger son of the Duke of Southbourne, had been many. Sound body, quick mind, kind father, loving mother, formidable education, stout-heart friends and few…if any, foes. He counted these regularly. One should, one would if one were the vicar of a parish with a congregation of one hundred and two souls who were, usually, moderate in their passions and hard-working for their master. Charlie—for he had always thought of himself in that informal way which was the address his mother had used—had come to his calling easily, at his father’s encouragement and at a young age. Thus when he had chosen to leave his first parish in Sussex and gone off to fight the wars in Spain and France, he’d done it out of as big a love, this time for Country and Crown. His service abroad had been long—six years in fact. That it had also opened his eyes to the inhumanity of man to man was a dastardly result. Hard to swallow, really, for one who had a strong belief in the goodness of mankind. So when he left the chaplaincy of the Army and returned home nine months ago, his displeasure with the failings of the human spirit had tempted him to leave the clergy altogether. Yet a man must be practical, eh? Soon he was in search of his next assignment and a month ago took the offer of the Viscount Courtland. St. Andrew’s was a lovely chapel on the periphery of the man’s estate. And the living he offered Charlie was extraordinarily generous, given the penury that most Anglican clergymen were thrust into upon taking a parish to themselves. That good fortune (not to put too much glory to five hundred pounds a year) was added to Charlie’s daily list.
Proud of himself for this morning’s good work to counsel a man who loved his drink far too much, Charlie tapped the top of his hat as he left the tumbledown cottage of his parishioner, George Billoughby, that man’s wife Eunice and four children. The little Billoughbys—ages four years old through four months—were thinner than Charlie’s father’s old ivory walking stick—and just as pale. “Vicar! Vicar!” George hailed him along the stone path to the chapel. Charlie swung round, a smile on his face he did not feel. This was the third time he and George had had heart-to-hearts about liquor. “Yes, Mister Billoughby?” “I told my missus you’d not shame us by sending us clothes from the Poor basket.” “Sir, no one need ever know where they came from. And your baby Jim is nigh unto naked.” His little doodle and two whirlygigs swung freely in threadbare cotton. But that was not much different than the rest of the family because George Billoughby refused not merely a few old clothes, but vegetables, flour…and work.
“He’ll catch his death.” “For him, aye.” He wiped a trembling hand over his dry lips. “A gown or two. But no charity for the others. I ken work, I ken.” Charlie scowled at him. He’d recommended work on the country road gang for which Viscount Courtland paid handsomely. “If you are committed this time—?” “Aye, sir.” His hunched back and spindly legs bore signs that his bones would break with one misstep.
“I’ll be there. I will.” “Come to the vicarage tomorrow morning. I will give you work.” God knew what. But he’d find it. “Aye. Aye, Thank ye.” As he strode away, Charlie cursed to himself. Oh, not such a fine idea, but he hadn’t taken the Lord’s name in vain.
Just lambasted the work of the devil. “That should keep me in Heaven’s good graces while I figure how the hell to spread my living among those who eat only gruel.” He kicked a stone down the path. His anger was a comfort as well as his curses. That shouldn’t be. “But it is.” It also gave him cause to wonder if he had made the right decision to return to serving the believers. He couldn’t save frail Mabel Cummings from her wasting disease. Nor could he stop Tom Stockdon from picking fights with his neighbor. He entered his tidy little chapel and sat down to count his blessings for this morning.
The surprise visit of Eunice Billoughby to the front door of his cottage earlier had delayed his regular practice to go first thing to his church, sit in the peace of an old pew and engage in his morning practice of counting his blessings. But now as he sat, the vision that popped before him was the wan face of Eunice Billoughby. Worn by baring and caring for four children in four years, Eunice had begged him to talk to her husband about his drunkenness. But talk was merely a temporary salve over a wound neither George nor Eunice or even Charlie could see. Charlie had dealt with men in their cups while he served in the army, and had promised each one a better day once the war was done. How could he promise finer days to George Billoughby if he knew not the cause of his need for drink? He sighed, put his hat to the pew and stared up at the sun’s rays streaming into his little church. They sparkled, dappled by the swaying tree leaves, arcing in the colors of the rainbow bathing the altar in the beauties of the universe. Would that all on earth could shimmer and dance in joyous abandon. But the despair in Eunice Billoughby’s eyes declared that was not so. He folded his hands together in a renewed attempt to devote himself to prayer.
The usual list of his gifts came to his lips…and so did the one that had not yet come. Among those blessings he praised heaven for, no woman had ever appeared. Oh, he had enjoyed his early years as a young buck in London. His social status what it was, he had similarly well-bred friends and family whose invitations to balls and house parties he always accepted. He knew The One Hundred well. A duke’s son never lacked for acquaintances or opportunities. His friends and those who were not among the elite had marveled that he had decided to take his papa’s suggestion and enter the Church. “Trade?” asked one of his second cousins. “Join me. Sugar from the Indies.
I need help.” But Charlie had declined adventure in the jungles of the New World in favor of the church. “How can you get on?” his friend, Winston Fullerton had pressed him. “You’ll never have a penny to call your own.” Money had never been lacking in Charlie’s life so at that point, he easily answered Fullerton that coin was not what made people happy. “And marriage? Children?” Fullerton had continued. “What if you fall in love?” “Love,” Charlie had answered, “could come in church as well as out of it.” Or he hoped that would be so. After all, he’d had a general introduction to the varieties of male-female attractions. He had experienced lust, a rather risqué but true admission.
Most of those incidents, however, had occurred in his callow youth and five times in Spain (yes, he recalled each one vividly) after imbibing more than a temperate amount of poor Spanish red wine. Now he was thirty years of age and so, he began to doubt love might come his way. In fact, he doubted love in general came to men easily or even clearly. He’d seen men slaver after nubile debutantes and wondered at the attraction. He’d seen others mad to possess another man’s wife, a widow or a doxy from the streets. Charlie had admired a few women for their beauty or their skills at cards. But no one woman had ever captured his imagination with a look or a word…or a quest for understanding. Odd that, but there it was. Thirty and single. Rich in friends and a fine father, but little else.
He grabbed his hat, rose to leave and headed toward the sacristy. Yesterday he’d left the room a mess, vestments scattered about, when Mabel Cummings’s daughter fetched him to the old woman’s bedside. He tidied the room up, had hung up the last robe and readied to go home when he heard someone in the church talking. So it was with surprise that he found a young woman, head bowed, in one of his pews, her ebony hair an intricate crown upon her head, her long gloved fingers clasped together in plea, as she argued with God. “I don’t see why you would do this.” She shook her head, her eyes squeezed tightly closed. “It’s really quite unfair, you know. I’ve been very good.” He put one hand to the curved back of the sturdy oak pew. He should tell her he was here.
“I’ve been virtuous, Lord. Though who wants to be?” She raised her face. “I’d like a man to savor. A true love to climb into bed with. Just like Esme.” What? Really? Esme Harvey was Viscount Courtland’s daughter. Esme had climbed into bed with…? Oh, this is none of my business! “As her friend, I’ve stood by her through all her antics.” Charlie smiled. A boon companion, eh? Well, hell. Ahem.
We all need one. Or more! “To my mother and father, I’ve been respectful. Obedient. Even to the point that now, I cannot be!” Oh, if she were ready to confess sins, he should really make himself known. “But you know that if I stop agreeing to marry, they will think me odd. I’m not odd!” She sat taller and the lovely line of her profile down the long line of her neck to the charmingly generous points of her breasts was a vision that set his pulse pounding. And another part of his anatomy stirred to life too. He raised his hand to announce himself when— “I will kill them!” What? Kill? Who? “You cannot,” she seethed with despair and dabbed at the corners of her eyes, “you simply cannot betroth me to another man.” No. Definitely not.
That hair, that perfect nose, those wonderfully full lips, that throat and those breasts should belong to a man who could savor them…like me. I could. I— “Why do that then, eh?” She went on, angrier than before, if that were possible. “Why match them to me and then kill them?” The girl was rather mad, was she? Why would a father and mother kill their daughter’s fiancé? Who was this young woman? “It’s not fair. Anyone now who wants me will balk. I would! But Papa offers so much money, it’s a sin.” A man who buys his girl’s husband? Yes, well. Charlie ran a hand through his hair. It happened. Often.
Whether it was arranged that way or appeared that way. Money ruled the world. “And I will not wed at all, if you cannot send me a man who lives and one who doesn’t want me only for my dowry.” Well. Charlie shrugged. Living was not in a man’s ability to predict or sometimes, control. Each person thought they’d live forever. But they didn’t. Ever. The war had taught him that, when as many died of plague or cold or starvation as cannon balls and gun shot.
“But I will not kill another man.” Sound thinking. “So you had better find a way to influence my father about my marriage. I will not be a party to bribery of any poor man.” Oh, bravo. “And I will not wed a creature who does not love me.” She shot to her feet. “Madly!” She whirled, ready to storm out, but came face-to-face with him. “Oh! Oh!” Her horrified gaze swept down his dour black clothes. “Who…Or you are the…the vicar?!” “I am, indeed.
” “You heard me?” She scowled, more perturbed than ashamed. Good for her. “I did. If you would like to talk—” “With you? No.” She tugged at her gloves, her pert nose in the air. “But if you wish to talk with God about me—” “Why would I?” He had to arch a brow and grin. She narrowed her large hazel eyes on him. Ah. She was not amused. “Don’t men of the cloth talk to Him often?” “I’d say we claim His ear more than most.
” She inhaled and those lovely breasts rose with the stunning effort. But she was now— dare he say?—indignant. “Then if you’re in need of a topic?” He rarely had the lack, but he’d keep her here to sooth her ruffled feathers. “I could make an appeal.” “Marvelous. Then tell Him, do, that I am not interested in any more proposals from men of frail condition or financial necessity.” “You’ve had too many. Yes.” He fingered his hat, lest he reach out and push back the curling strands of ebony hair that brushed her charming chubby cheeks. “I heard.
” “Just so. And you will tell Him I wish to marry no man like that.” “I can indeed offer up that prayer for you.” “I am obliged. Thank you, sir.” And then she wiggled her way out of that pew. The sight of her graceful departure—and the sway of her rounded hips in the clinging rose muslin—forced him to step behind a pew himself. Hiding his physical response to her shapely person was a requirement to preserving his dignity lest she turn and discover him damnably attracted to her. And in church, no less! He watched her hurry away…and an ache pierced his heart. Would he see her again? A friend of Esme’s yes, but—? “Wait! Please!” He ventured to leave the safety of his pew.
And he took the aisle slowly for it was hideously difficult to walk in the state of rigid arousal. She whirled to face him…and thankfully, she kept her gaze on his face. He breathed more easily. Walked right up to her, inhaled the fragrance of verbena and roses, fought with his insistent cock for a minute and said, “I cannot petition Our Lord without your name, can I?” “You can’t just…?” She waved a hand. “Ask Him for favors…in general?” He offered her the look he dubbed, Mysteries of Life. “What will He think if I am asking gifts for all young unmarried women in general?” “We do need help. All of us.” That was true. Women had no standing, legally or financially. “He does have quite a few young ladies to care for.
So…your name would be useful.” “I see your point.” “Hmm. He wouldn’t…” She waggled her finger toward the altar. “Know that I’d petitioned Him here, that you and I talked and that I asked for your assistance?” “He might if I told him my thoughts were of the lady who’d been here and who killed her suitors.” She winced. “Not how I wish to be known.” “As I thought.” She licked her lips. Plump, pink lips.
He shifted. Tried to smile. Wished for bigger breeches. She put out her hand. “Lady Willa Sheffield.” “How do you do?” He put his hand to hers and had the urge to pull her into his embrace and feel those breasts against his chest. But the name Sheffield rang like bells through his brain. She was…dear Christ! The Earl de Courcy’s girl. His father’s worst political enemy. Not that such enmity mattered here to him or her or her circumstances.
After all the old gentlemen’s rivalry was political. She tipped her head and took back her hand. “And you are…?” “Vicar of this parish. Reverend Charles Compton.” “Good to meet you, sir. Thank you for the assistance with my problem.” She stepped back, tugging at her gloves, jumpy as a cat to leave him where he stood. “Good day.”