Sara stared out the window from where she sat, the rain obscuring the vista of the park surrounding Ridgestone. She felt listless and restless all at once. The ants that usually made themselves known in her throat seemed to have moved outside of her body and were currently setting her nerves on edge. She often looked down at her arms or scratched them, the sensation was so real, only to find that nothing she did provided her with the relief she sought.
She had not slept well the night before. Mr. Grant’s wicked words had burrowed inside of her head. She did not want them there, but had no control over her dreams. Her conscious mind had little conception of what happened in the bedchamber of a married couple, but her unconscious took her experience of Mr. Grant’s kiss and enhanced it by an undeterminable degree. She had woken several times during the night, her body sweaty and aching, disappointment pulsing with every beat of her heart that her dream had not succeeded in educating her beyond his kiss, the more he had mentioned.
Why do you dislike taking what you want? His words continued to ring in her mind, rebelling against everything her mother had taught her. The pious life was one of sacrifice and denial, not greed and gluttony.
To eat when you are hungry is greed?
Sara tried to rid herself of his words, but they only settled in more firmly. And, she hesitated to admit, she understood his reasoning. Even perhaps agreed with it. Why was it a sin to eat when one was hungry? Why had her mother taught her that? Were there any other flawed teachings?
“Miss Collins, are you unwell?”
Sara blinked and turned her attention back to the one who had spoken. Mr. Pomeroy. Right, he had come to visit today. Louisa, acting as chaperone, was sitting at the other end of the sofa, looking at her with concern.
“Excuse me?” Sara asked.
“I asked if you were unwell,” the vicar repeated. “You seem distracted, staring out the window and sighing.”
Oh dear. “I beg your pardon sir,” Sara apologized. You apologize quite a bit. I am surprised you do not buckle under the weight of your conscience.
She forced herself to ignore Mr. Grant’s words. “I am distracted,” she continued. “I did not sleep well last night and am finding it hard to concentrate.”
“Oh,” Mr. Pomeroy replied. “I should not be keeping you then. Shall I leave you to your rest?”
A thought flashed through her mind that Mr. Grant would not be so indecisive; instead, he would act without hesitation. She wondered at the lack of betrayal she felt at that thought; Mr. Pomeroy was best suited for her and here she was, comparing him to another man and finding him lacking.
She forced a smile. “No, please stay,” she said. “I am fine, truly.”
The vicar settled back down in his chair, his eyes questioning her. “If you are certain.”
Why did his solicitousness grate on her all of the sudden? Wasn’t it a sign that he cared for and respected her? She doubted that Mr. Pomeroy would even think about putting his tongue in her mouth, let alone tell her he wanted to do it again and again and . . .
Sara stopped her thoughts and continued to smile. “I am. In fact, I was wondering if I might ask a question of you.”
He straightened and returned her smile. “Of course, anything I can help you with.”
She pressed her lips together for a moment and took a deep breath. “What is the definition of greed?” The words rushed out of her before her mother’s voice had a chance to stop them.
Mr. Pomeroy blinked. “Well, I would say it is the desire to have more when one’s need has already been satisfied. It is about excess.”
Sara felt her shoulders droop. Her mother had been right. “So when one’s need has been satisfied, it is a sin to desire more.”
The vicar gave her a serious look. “Yes,” he answered slowly. “But it is not a hard and fast rule. Greed, I believe, is an excess that drives people to evil deeds. For instance, a man who wishes to increase his fortune at the expense or neglect of others is sinning, but a man who increases his fortune to help others or provide more effectively for those who depend upon him is not. The definition of greed as a sin depends upon the intentions of the man.”
“Oh.” That gave her something to think about. So many times she had wanted to eat simply because she was hungry, yet was denied by her mother. “Do intentions negate sin, then?” she asked.
“No, they do not,” the vicar replied. “Perhaps if I knew more about the context in which you asking, I may be able to answer more thoroughly.”
Sara hesitated for a moment before saying, “If a man were hungry, would it be greed to eat?”
Mr. Pomeroy smiled. “No, I do not believe so.”
“Even if he had already eaten to his satisfaction earlier?”
“Hunger can never be permanently satisfied, Miss Collins. It is a need we must constantly seek to fulfill.”
His statement had echoed Mr. Grant’s words from last night, yet another realization that shook Sara. She looked at the vicar and heard desperation begin to creep into her voice. “What if his hunger drove him to evil deeds, such as you described? What if he had to steal in order to eat? Would that not make eating a sin?”
He looked at her for a long moment. “I cannot condone breaking the law, of course, and we are commanded to not steal. Yes, stealing is a sin no matter the circumstance, but I would think the greater sin lies with those who had the means to feed the man and did not.”
She swallowed. “So it is not greedy nor a sin to eat when one is hungry?”
The vicar’s face softened into another smile. “Even Our Lord Jesus Christ fed the hungry, Miss Collins, and I do not believe He limited Himself to those who were starving, but included all who were experiencing hunger, even if they had eaten mere hours earlier.”
“But the pious life is one of sacrifice and denial.” She spoke her mother’s words in a soft voice.
“To an extent, I concur. But simultaneously, indulgence is not necessarily a sin. I do not believe God desires us to wholly deny ourselves. If He loves us, He would want us to experience happiness and pleasure. Sacrifice and denial are necessary, but we also must celebrate the life generously bestowed upon us. It is when that indulgence overtakes one’s life so that one is blinded to the necessary sacrifice and denial that I believe it becomes a sin.”
She fell silent again, turning her head to gaze out the misty window. We must celebrate the life generously bestowed upon us. Had her life been one of celebration? It was true she was more fortunate than others, but could she honestly say that she was happy? That she had enjoyed and celebrated her life thus far? The answer that came to mind betrayed her mother.
But what sort of power did her mother have over her now? She had been gone for some years; could she still wield influence from the grave to the extent that Sara had allowed her?
That was a staggering thought. Sara had allowed her mother the power over her. Was it true? Was it truly her own decision to continue along the path of sacrifice and denial that her mother had led her to, to the extent that she was sacrificing her happiness, her dreams?
Why do you dislike taking what you want?
It was not greed. Nor even necessarily sin, according to the vicar. If she were hungry, there was nothing wrong with eating.
The vicar cleared his throat, interrupting Sara’s thoughts. “I fear I have tested your endurance far enough. I will go.” He rose and Sara and Louisa, uncharacteristically silent for the entire visit, followed suit. Bows and curtseys were exchanged and Mr. Pomeroy left.
Sara sank back down to the sofa, but Louisa remained standing. It wasn’t until the sound of the door closing that her friend whirled and approached her.
“What was that all about?” Louisa asked, sitting abruptly beside her.
“You were awfully quite this afternoon,” Sara said, attempting to divert her attention.
“I was being the proper chaperone,” she replied, “prepared to speak only when necessary, thus being unobtrusive. But you didn’t answer my question.”
“Louisa, I—” Sara stopped, trying to formulate her thoughts. “Have you ever woken up one day to realize that all you believed in for your entire life was a lie?”
“I don’t understand. What does this have to do with greed and sin?”
“Please, just answer my question.”
The other lady was silent for several moments. Her voice was soft and serious when she spoke. “There is much you and Claire and Bonnie don’t know about me. But the answer is yes.”
Sara stared at Louisa. It was true; she did not know much of her friend’s past. She had just assumed that Louisa was from a similar background to that of Claire’s, but now she was unsure. Had Louisa even ever mentioned any family?
Not wanting to pry, Sara whispered, “And what did you do?”
The expression in Louisa’s eyes was unlike anything Sara had ever seen on her friend. Her brown eyes, usually bright and determined, held a darkness that made the small hairs on Sara’s arms stand up. It was only there for a moment before Louisa veiled it, but the feeling lingered on her arms.
Louisa’s voice was flat when she answered, her eyes remote. “I did what had to be done. I began living my life for myself. I stopped depending on others; I am the only one I can trust, the only one I can rely on. There is no one else.”
Sara reached out slowly as though she was afraid her movement would startle her friend. She lightly touched Louisa’s arm. “We are here,” she whispered. “Claire and I. And Bonnie. You can rely on us.”
Louisa blinked and the remoteness fell away. She smiled at Sara and patted her hand which rested lightly on Louisa’s arm. “Of course you are. I know that. But what does this have to do with you?”
“I have recently been informed that I do not take what I want.”
Louisa let out a short laugh. “That is an understatement.”
Hearing her friend agree with Mr. Grant set Sara’s hackles on edge. “What do you mean by that?”
Louisa shook her head ruefully. “You are one of my dearest friends, so believe me when I tell you that I am not saying this to hurt you. Sara, you are one of the most meek, frightened people I have ever met.”
“I am sure you would be frightened by your own shadow if you did not see it every day. You don’t stand up for yourself in anything and dislike anything that remotely necessitates a decision. And heaven forbid that decision result in something that requires change.”
“That is not true,” Sara replied. “Joining the Governess Club was a decision that I made and it required a great deal of change.”
“Yes to the change, which we all greatly helped you with. You barely spoke for the first week after we moved in here. But deciding to join us?” Louisa shook her head. “We made the decision for you. We just began preparations as if you had voiced your agreement, even though you had not. And because you avoid confrontation like the plague, you did not stand up to us to refuse participation. That is how you got here, not because you actually made the decision to come.”
“That is not true,” Sara whispered.
“Yes, it is.” Louisa stood and moved toward the open door. “If you want to change, I think that is admirable. But I will believe it when I see it. It is going to take more than a conversation about sin with a vicar to do that.”
The rustle of her skirts faded down the corridor and Sara turned her head once more to watch the rain.
Nathan put another log on the fire and straightened, putting most of his weight on his good leg. The chill from the damned rain had settled in the house; such weather made his leg ache even without adding that extra bit. He shifted to the table he had set up nearby that held the ingredients for a hot toddy. He wasn’t feeling poorly, aside from his leg, but the concoction helped banish the chill in general.
He coated one of the mugs with honey and added the dram of brandy and bit of lemon. He lifted the kettle from where it warming by the fire and poured it in, watching the steam rise. As he stirred, the spoon clinked against the mug, ear-piercing in the silence of the library.
He lifted the mug to his lips, blowing on the hot liquid before taking a sip. He stared at the fire, thinking of the fires at the charity fair last night. And Miss Collins. Sara.
His day yesterday had been spent simultaneously stalking and avoiding the woman. He didn’t even know why or how he had ended up at the event; it was certainly not in line with his desire to be unsocial. But he had found himself wandering around, exchanging small talk with those who he had met and glowering at the children running around him.
Every time he turned around, she was there. With the children, with her friends, at the food tables. And every time he saw her, he couldn’t help but stare for several moments before tearing himself away and turning his back on her. Until the dance in the evening.
That was the image that stuck with him. He had seen her across the dancing area, her skin kissed by the large bonfires and looking so tantalizing that all intentions of avoiding her had flown from mind. The urge to approach her had thudded in his bones, making it near impossible to resist.
And he hadn’t. Hadn’t resisted the urge to approach her and hadn’t resisted any bug that had burrowed in his brain to pull her into sitting with him and provoking her with his conversation.
And he didn’t regret it.
The way her cheeks had flushed when he described his dreams to her had been the most arousing thing he had ever seen. Her chest had risen as her breathing quickened, and if he hadn’t been so riveted by the way her eyes had glowed with desire, he was certain he wouldn’t have been able to look anywhere but her bosom. Even now the memory sent a spurt of excitement from his stomach to his groin.
Nathan took another sip of his hot toddy, enjoying the warmth spreading through his chest. He turned away from the fire to move back to his chair to continue reading his book. The sight of Sara Collins standing not ten feet away from him, completely drenched and shivering, made him choke on the tea.
“Jesus Christ,” he gasped against the scalding in his esophagus. “How the hell did you get in here?”
Her teeth were chattering. “Th-the-there was no an-answer at th-the d-d-d-oor. I let m-myself in.”
“Generally when there is no answer at a door, people leave.”
His gaze ran down her body, taking in the bedraggled clumps of hair hanging around her chin and shoulders and how her soaked dress clung to her curves, accentuating her bosom and hips and giving more than hint of the juncture of her thighs.
His mouth went dry and his brain began to empty.
His gaze retraced its path back up her body, lingering when he saw the tight nipples through the wet material at her breasts, appreciating the way they were moving in time with her breathing. His gaze returned to her face, enjoying the column of her neck and her trembling lips before meeting her eyes.
It was a belated realization that her breasts were moving and her lips were trembling because her entire body was being racked by shivering.
Nathan closed the distance between them in short work and thrust his hot toddy into her hands. “Drink this,” he ordered before moving to retrieve a blanket from one of the sofas. “Little fool. Did you not even wear a cloak?” He wrapped the blanket around her shoulders and watched her swallow some of the toddy.
“I wasn’t th-thinking,” she replied.
His brows rose. “That much is clear.”
“I didn’t know I was coming here,” she continued, her teeth no longer chattering. “Not at first. I just had to leave the house because I needed to think. Walking helps me think. And I ended up here.”
Nathan was confused. “Why would thinking have you end up here? You don’t like me.”
She shook her head. “I never said that. I said you were unpleasant, but that doesn’t mean I don’t like you.”
“Allow me to rephrase. Why would you come here when you find me unpleasant?”
She took another drink of the hot toddy. “Because I have made a decision.”
She nodded. “Yes. I have made the decision that I want an adventure and for the first time in my life I am going to take what I want. You’re going to be my adventure, Mr. Grant. Teach me what you meant by saying you wanted to do more to me. I want to know and you’re going to help me.”