Vicars Always Woo Wallflowers – Catherine Mayfair

Lightning flashed, brightening the parlor as Miss Honora Stanhope, Nora to those who knew her well, studied the book of philosophy on her lap. A moment later, the rumble of thunder caused the silver candle holder beside her to shake. She was unafraid, for the storm outside fascinated her. Though it appeared ugly and threatening, and one would have thought it would be raining buckets, the rain that accompanied the bright flashes and ominous peals was barely a mist. The mantle clock showed it was nearing nine and therefore was well past time to retire for the night. She rose, took the candle in hand, and walked to the window. The storm was a great reminder of the night she had come to Tremont Estate a year earlier. Her father, a struggling merchant of wool, had passed away, and though she feared a life alone, Reverend Reginald Perry had found her refuge here with Lord Edwin Rowe. As Nora had no family, the viscount had assumed the role of guardian, telling curious ears that she was a distant cousin without a home. “Though he has looked upon me as more in recent days,” she whispered to the darkness beyond the candlelight. The truth was that the man’s eyes had lingered upon her longer than should have been prudent for a guardian – or a cousin. His compliments on her dress or of the increasing accomplishments of her private lessons had a fawning that left her with the feel of bugs crawling on her skin. She prayed his change in how he viewed her was nothing more than her imagination, for she did owe him much. How many men would take in a young woman of eighteen without expecting something sinister in return? In the beginning, she had thought Lord Rowe’s intentions pure. Now, she was not so sure.

Sighing, and with the book under an arm and the single candle in hand, she left the parlor in search of her benefactor. If she could have her way, she would have gone straight to bed without seeing the man, but even from the first day in his home, the viscount had instructed her to wish him a goodnight each night. When she had forgotten on one occasion, he became angry. Since then, she did not circumvent this order. Over the last week, the man had taken it upon himself to kiss her cheek during this nightly ritual. The first had been a light touch of the cheeks as one might give a friend, but much like his lingering eyes, the kisses had begun to linger longer than she liked. The hallway was empty, though some of the sconces were lit. That was strange, for the viscount was quite economical. “If one is not using a room, candles do not need to be lit,” he was wont to say. “It is a waste of money, and I, for one, do not like to waste money.

” She peeked into the sitting room, but it was empty. The thunder shook the house once more as she came near his office. As she reached for the door, she paused upon hearing two voices rather than the single voice of Lord Rowe. “Then what am I to do?” the voice not belonging to the viscount asked. “These men, this Man in Black, is ruining everything I have built! My income has taken a great hit, and I do not like that, Rowe, not one whit!” Nora worried her bottom lip. She had heard rumors since her arrival to Tremont Estate concerning the Man in Black and those who worked with him. They were known to help anyone in danger, but their largest accomplishment was how often they rescued women from terrible situations. Until now, she had dismissed the rumors as nothing more than idle gossip. “My dear Mowbray,” that voice belonged to Lord Rowe, “you are forgetting the power I possess. I will find those miscreants and see them disposed of.

These men will not stop me if I have anything to do with it.” Nora’s heart began to thud in her chest. Surely he did not mean murder? He might have leering looks from time to time, but to consider such a dreadful act was going all too far. “Now,” the viscount continued, “you will continue the shipment as planned.” Mowbray sputtered in his response. “And if it is lost? What then? Will you cover my losses? Or do you mean to simply dictate from behind your desk? I am not scared of you, you know!” Lord Rowe laughed. “You should be,” he said, “for you know how strong an authority I have. You will do as I say and stop pestering me with your constant whining.” As the men continued on to discussions of business, Nora worried her lip again – a terrible habit, she knew, but she could not help herself whenever she was deep in thought. She had suspected the friendly smile Lord Rowe wore was nothing more than a facade, and now she had no doubt.

Fear gripped her. The man was evil! Yet, the same problem which brought her to Tremont Estate kept her here. She had nowhere to go. No family, no friends, and she certainly would never be able to find a gentleman suitor, one willing to marry her, as the orphaned daughter of a failed wool merchant. Her love of reading and her quiet demeanor had led to teasing and accusations of being a wallflower, and Lord Rowe had as much as said he would see those characteristics trained out of her. As she thought these things, the burning of the candle caused her eyes to water. Then, to her shock and dismay, she sneezed. Her heart raced as footsteps came to her ear and a moment later Lord Rowe opened the door. “Nora,” he said with a slight sneer, “what are you doing here?” He had dark hair with specks of gray, but it was his dark piercing eyes that made her look away in fear. “I came to wish you a good night,” she said.

“I did not realize you had a guest.” Fearing she had given away too much, she added, “Or were you speaking with a servant?” “Mowbray was just leaving,” the viscount replied. Another man of the same age as Lord Rowe appeared, bowed to Nora, and said, “Miss.” Then he turned to the viscount and bowed. “Lord Rowe.” “Come in,” Lord Rowe said once the other man was gone. With shaky legs, she stepped into the room and Lord Rowe closed the door with a light click. A rich beige rug was soft beneath her slippers and expensive oak furniture filled the room. Unlike the rest of the house, this room was well-lit with numerous candles that highlighted a large desk with its own chair and two more chairs facing it on the other side. Leather-bound tomes lined tall bookshelves on either side of the desk, and an array of stuffed animal heads lined the remaining walls.

It was very much a room designed for a man. “What is this?” Lord Rowe growled as he grabbed the book from her hands and then sighed. “I have told you time and again that you are not to read such books, yet you defy me?” “It is not my intention to do so,” Nora said as the man also took the candle from her other hand. “It is just that I find the subject fascinating.” Lord Rowe shook his head and sighed. “Nora, you are now a lady,” he said as he walked over to a small table and placed the book and candle on it. “You do not need to read such subjects. Your place is to serve your husband, not to fill your mind with such things. You wish to remain a wallflower, though I do not understand why.” “I do not know if I am that,” she said.

“I suppose I am plain to most, I will not argue that fact.” He came to stand before her. “You are far from plain,” he said, touching her cheek with the back of his hand. “In fact, you are quite desirable.” She swallowed hard, wanting nothing more than to be away from this room. “Good night, my lord,” she said. As she turned to leave, Lord Rowe grasped her hand. “Do you not want to be desirable?” he asked. “The private lessons I have financed are to help you. It seems you do not appreciate all I have done for you.

I never thought you would be ungrateful for my generosity.” “Not at all, my lord,” Nora said, wishing he would release her wrist. “I am quite thankful for every opportunity you have given me. I promise not to read in your presence again.” When he replied with a smile, Nora thought herself safe from his scorn, but the smile dropped faster than it had appeared. “How long were you outside this room listening?” “I had but just arrived,” she replied. “I heard nothing.” He narrowed eyes at her. “You are lying.” She winced in pain as he tightened his grip on her wrist.

“I will not tolerate lying! Now, how long were you standing there?” “Please, my lord,” Nora said as tears welled in her eyes, “let me go. I would like to go to bed.” To her surprise, he released her, pushing her arm away as if it had caused him direct offense. “I am a powerful man,” he said in a low threatening tone, “and I imagine you heard enough to understand as much. I suspect you have known this for some time.” Nora nodded. “Yes, my lord. You are a well-respected gentleman.” He studied her for a moment. “Now I find myself in the oddest of predicaments.

If you know this and heard what I said this night, what am I to do with you?” Fear gripped her tighter than his hand had gripped her wrist. Would he have her murdered as he had more than insinuated about the Man in Black? “I swear to you that I did not hear much. I heard only words of warning to the other man, that he was not to upset you.” Lord Rowe placed his hands on her shoulders. “Nora, Nora, this is your last chance. Do not lie to me or you will pay dearly. You heard more than that, did you not?” With tears now streaming down her cheeks, she could do nothing more than nod. “There now, it is better that we are honest. And I suppose I shall be honest with you.” “Honest?” she asked, the word nearly choking her.

The man grinned as his hand moved up and down her arms in a much too familiar manner. “I took you into my home for a particular reason,” he said. “It is the same reason I had private tutors work with you. To make you the lady I need here with me.” Nora shook her head in despair. “I do not understand, my lord.” She suspected she did understand but held onto a strand of hope that said she was misinterpreting his meaning. “You see yourself as plain, but I see far more.” His eyes raked over her dress, and Nora thought she would faint from the fear that threatened to close off her air. Then, to her shock and dismay, he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers.

The kiss was cold and wet, and she wanted to push him away, yet she found herself unable to move. When the horrible kiss ended, he smiled down at her. Not a friendly smile, but rather one of lust and wickedness. “I will make you my wife.” If fear had gripped her before, horror took ahold of her now. “I am sorry, my lord, but I do not want that. I will leave tomorrow so you may find a woman more receptive of your…offering.” His laugh made the tiny hairs on the nape of her neck stand on end. “Leave?” he said, still chuckling coldly. “Where will you go? You have no one, and I doubt anyone will take in an orphan of your advanced age.

Children can tug at the heartstrings, but once those children reach a certain age, no one wants to help them.” He chuckled again. “Tonight, you will receive your final lesson.” Her heart thudded. “What lesson?” she whispered. “You will learn what it is to be a wife by sleeping in my bed,” he replied with a smile that would have frightened off a benevolent ghost. “Go to my bedchambers now, and I shall join you shortly.” Nora thought she would be ill. “My lord…” “Do not make me hurt you,” he said. “I paid dearly for you, and what I have added over the last year surpasses what any man should pay for a woman.

But now I will claim what is mine.” With heavy feet, Nora left the office and made her way toward his bedchambers. Would her virtue be taken this night? It appeared to be so, and she could do nothing to stop it from happening. Tears rolled down her face as she thought of the passing of her father and what had led her to this moment. If only Reverend Perry knew how terrible Lord Rowe was! Then, as lightening shone through the window and filled the foyer, a glimmer of hope came to mind. The reverend. Surely, since he had helped her before, he would do so again! Once he learned how cruel Lord Rowe was, there would be no hesitation. Rather than going up the steps, she hurried to the front door and out onto the stoop. The church grounds were nearly five miles away, but Nora had walked further and in worse weather than this in the past. With a glance back at the house, she knew her fate if she were to remain, and she would rather die out there in the darkness than to endure what the viscount had planned for her.

If the reverend refused to help, she would continue walking until she found someone who would. Chapter Two Luke Dunford studied the letter in his hands. It had come to him via an innkeeper the day before, and its contents shocked him. It was a request to call on Reverend Reginald Perry, the very man who had forced Luke from his role as vicar all those years ago. “What will you do?” Robert Mullbury, also known as the Man in Black, asked from across the small campfire. An early morning sun peeked over the horizon, creating a light haze to gather around them. “Do you plan on meeting the man?” “I am unsure,” Luke said with a sigh. “He said the matter is urgent, though I cannot think of any matter urgent enough for him to make such a request.” He shook his head. “The man ruined my name, made me leave with my head hanging in shame, and now he seeks my help?” Anger caused his jaw to ache as he turned the letter over in his hands.

“It is odd. I still feel an obligation to the Church despite what happened.” “It is not odd,” Robert replied. “You dedicated a good portion of your earlier life to it, and the bond is still there. Remember, your oath was to the Church, not to the men who run it.” Luke nodded, his mind turning to times past. He had been a vicar who gave aid to those who hungered, both from food and spirit. It had been that joy of helping others that led him to the camp and that kept him there. Despite all he had given to the church – his time, his energy, everything – one choice he made, a justifiable decision if any took the time to study it, had seen him defrocked. Even today he could still see the woman, her face covered in bruises and tears falling like rain.

“My life is here now,” he said to his friend. “Not helping the Church that wanted nothing to do with me.” Though he said the words, he could not help but wonder, why, after all these years, did Reverend Perry send for his help of all people? The man’s need must be great if he wanted Luke’s help. Yet, if concerned parishioners needed aid, would Luke refuse them? He looked around the camp. Others were beginning to rise and were preparing for the day ahead. Perhaps a new adventure would be a nice change of pace. “Send word when you have learned more,” Robert said as he stood. “I will be interested in knowing why they need you.” Luke laughed. “You assume I will answer his call.

Do you honestly believe you will be able to survive without me here?” “Not only will I survive,” Robert replied, “but perhaps I will get more done since I will not be forced to listen to your incessant complaining.” This, of course, made Luke chuckle. Robert really was a good friend. “Go, speak to him,” Robert said. “Perhaps you will find what you need.” Luke nodded. He knew what his friend meant. Redemption. Though he and the Church had long since parted ways, Luke wanted to be redeemed for his choices – forced upon him by them. “I will leave at once,” he said, standing.

“It will take me two days to ride to Moretone, but I believe I will not sleep well until I find out what this matter they speak of is.” “We have been friends for many years,” Robert said as he clasped Luke on the shoulder. “I pray that if you never return, it is because you have found the happiness we have all sought.” “Never return?” Luke asked with surprise. “This is my home, as well, lest you have forgotten. There is nothing that could keep me away from it or our mission.” “All the same, I believe our camp will one day have no need for either of us.” Luke made to argue, but Robert forestalled him. “Do you not see how our numbers continue to dwindle? That is a good thing, for the horrors of this world lessons with each passing day.” “Yet it will never be extinguished,” Luke replied with a frown.

“As long as evil exists, we must continue to fight it.” “The camp and the Man in Black will,” Robert said with a resigned smile. “But it is possible that it will not include us. I shall talk to you soon.” With that, he walked away, leaving Luke alone in his thoughts. What had Robert meant when he included himself in that statement? Was he wanting to return to his wife and pass the title to another? Robert himself was not the first Man in Black – that had been Stephen Chambers, who had found a wife, sired a child, and left the camp to join his family at Sweetspire Estates, so it was not surprising that eventually another would become the new Man in Black. Luke shook his head. None of that mattered to him. This was his home, and even if the Church forgave him, he would return to take up his place as simply one of the woodspeople. It was where he belonged.

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