Early May 1823
Sara’s breath caught when his eyes, dark as chocolate, met hers. Holding her gaze, those delicious eyes softened and glowed, sending ripples of warmth through her veins. A slow smile pulled across his lips, tugging an answering one on hers. Breathing became more difficult the longer their gazes remained locked. Her heartbeat quickened.
“I therefore beseech you, my brethren, to strive to love your neighbor not simply as you love yourself, but as God loves you.”
Even his voice sent tingles over her skin.
Mr. Charles Pomeroy, the new vicar in the village of Taft, moved his gaze to another in the congregation. “Think not merely of how you would wish to be treated, but how God would treat you in a similar situation. Seek out those who require succor and generosity of spirit and wealth, for it is our treatment of those in need by which we will be judged and will permit us to see the face of our benevolent Creator.”
Goodness, but their children would be blessed, especially if they take after their father. Sara could scarcely wait for that chapter of their lives to begin.
A sharp pinch in her side jerked Sara back to the present. She managed to stifle the instinctive shriek, thus avoiding disturbing the Sunday morning service and acquiring the unwanted attention of the village gossips.
Frowning, Sara glanced at the offending hand and gave Louisa a weak glare.
“Stop daydreaming about him,” her friend hissed under her breath.
Sara started to protest, but was cut off by the congregation rising for the final hymn. Mrs. Yardley hammered the notes on the pianoforte and Sara flipped through the hymnal pages to the appropriate song. Her clear voice joined the others.
She glanced up at the lectern and Mr. Pomeroy gave her another smile. She blushed and dropped her eyes back down, getting an elbow from Louisa this time.
“Really, Sara,” Louisa Hurst scolded once the service was over. “What will people think when they see a member of the Governess Club swooning in public over the vicar?”
“I—” Sara began.
Claire Knightly broke in. “This isn’t really the place, ladies,” she said, a smile pasted on her face as she nodded politely to an elderly matron wearing a hat the size of Kent. “Shall we?” She took her husband’s offered arm and led the group out of the small church. Sara and Louisa followed, suitably chastened.
Sara squinted as they stepped out, her small bonnet ineffective against the blinding sun. Using her hand as a shield, she saw Mr. Pomeroy standing nearby, surrounded by ladies of all ages. The handsome young man was smiling kindly, his attention jumping as one lady after another tried to capture his notice.
“I declare, Mr. Pomeroy, you do have an eye for flower arrangements,” Mrs. Glendoe was saying as Sara’s group approached. “You must feel free to use any of the blossoms from my garden in the church. Come by for tea Saturday next and my daughter Rebecca will help you select them.” The middle-aged matron pushed her daughter in the vicar’s direction.
“Thank you for your generosity, Mrs. Glendoe,” Mr. Pomeroy said in his smooth, deep voice. He noticed the new additions to the group around him and smiled. “But I must be honest in telling you that it was Miss Collins who arranged the flowers. I have no talent when it comes to that sort of thing, and she has been rescuing me for the past few weeks. Her talent is a gift from God.”
Sara blushed. The ladies in the circle all turned and looked at her, some pleasantly, some not. She shifted under their regard, unused to the attention.
Louisa stepped in. “We at Ridgestone are always willing to help out, Mr. Pomeroy. The Governess Club firmly believes in contributing to the larger community.”
“Ah, yes indeed.” Mr. Pomeroy looked bemused at Louisa’s words. He shifted his gaze to Jacob. “Mr. Knightly, if I might have a word.” He broke away from the gaggle of women and stood several feet away with Jacob, speaking in low tones.
Sara felt every female eye land on her again. She resisted the urge to shift nervously. Mrs. Glendoe was not succeeding in hiding her animosity, but several of the others were looking at her with kindness. She felt somewhat at ease with that knowledge.
“The flower arrangements were beautiful,” Mrs. Yardley, the pianist, complimented her. Her husband ran the general mercantile shop with her assistance, and she always welcomed Sara with a smile.
“Thank you, ma’am,” Sara replied in her quiet voice. “Mrs. Knightly has done wonders in restoring the gardens at Ridgestone. It only felt right to share them with the church and the community.”
Mrs. Glendoe sniffed. “Quite generous of you, to offer another’s flowers.”
Sara froze as Mrs. Glendoe’s disapproval and judgment tied a noose around her neck, tightening with every moment she was subjected to the lady’s severe glare. Breathing became difficult and her tongue felt glued to the back of her mouth.
“My Rebecca would never do something of the sort,” Mrs. Glendoe continued. “I find it difficult to believe the vicar would condone something akin to thievery.”
Sara’s chest constricted, and she felt trapped by the lady’s vehemence. Her mind blanked of everything but the thought of escape.
Louisa took Sara’s arm, preventing her flight. Sara’s friend met Mrs. Glendoe’s basilisk glare with one of her own. “Miss Collins is an asset to Ridgestone and to Taft, and Mr. Pomeroy is wise to acknowledge her value.”
Claire joined in. “And she is a welcome resident at the manor.” Her voice was even, but the steel underneath was evident. “The flowers are hers to offer as well and she has all of our blessings to do so.”
“I have seen your gardens, Mrs. Knightly,” Mrs. Thatcher, the matron with the Kent-size hat joined in. “You do have much to be proud of.” She shared a look with Claire and Louisa, acknowledging the necessary change in subject.
Claire gave Mrs. Glendoe another hard look before turning her full attention to Mrs. Thatcher. “Thank you, ma’am; it is something I enjoy doing.” Other ladies, taking their cue from the conversation, shifted until Mrs. Glendoe and her daughter were effectively cut out from the group. Huffing, the lady stalked to her carriage, her daughter trailing behind her.
“It rivals even that of Windent Hall’s garden, at least how it was thirty years ago,” Mrs. Thatcher continued. “I remember attending gatherings there as a young girl. The fragrances and combinations of blossoms were always to be remarked upon. I have yet to see another garden so peaceful and relaxing.”
“Windent Hall, the one bordering Ridgestone?” Louisa asked Claire. “I thought it was abandoned.”
“It is, it is,” the elderly lady answered for Claire. “Nearly twenty-five years now since the family up and left. No one knows why, but of course there were rumors of financial difficulty. The saddest part of all is how those gardens have been dormant ever since.”
The innocuous conversation soothed Sara like hot chocolate on a cold day. Slowly her lungs regained their capacity for air. She glanced at Louisa, who still held Sara’s arm, keeping her close. The firm embrace was comforting, and Sara was grateful for the support of her friend.
Louisa caught Sara’s eye and discreetly rubbed her arm. “Breathe, sweetheart,” she whispered. “In two three four, out two three four.”
Sara complied, feeling the noose loosen, and she breathed in relief. She hoped her eyes conveyed her gratitude. Louisa smiled and squeezed Sara’s arm before turning back to the conversation.
“I heard that the Hall is no longer abandoned,” Miss Felicity Leighton piped up. “Mama said just yesterday that it has been sold and Missy Evans said an agent came to her father asking to hire her and her brother to ready the place. I daresay we can expect the owner to arrive in the next few weeks or so.”
“Who bought it?” The question was on the mind of every gossip in the group.
Miss Leighton preened at being the center of attention. “That I do not know for certain. I think it is a young viscount looking to expand his holdings. Just imagine, a lord in the village! He will likely be bringing his family or bachelor friends here for hunting and such.” Miss Leighton was known to be looking for a noble marriage.
Louisa smirked and said to Sara under her breath, “I daresay if it is a viscount, we had best warn him away.”
Sara giggled, the action dislodging the rest of her anxiety.
“Claire,” Jacob’s voice interrupted the conversation. “Are you ready to return home? My stomach is requesting luncheon.”
Claire smiled at the ladies in the circle. “It was a pleasure to see you this morning.” Louisa and Sara echoed the farewell, and Jacob helped them all into the carriage, Claire taking the front-facing seat and her husband joining her. Sara and Louisa sat across from them, facing the rear. Sara burrowed herself into the side of the carriage as much as she was able to give Louisa more room.
“Miss Collins,” Mr. Pomeroy called out and approached the vehicle. Sara happily returned the smile. “I wish to thank you again for the flower arrangements.”
“It is no trouble, sir,” she replied, feeling her face heat up again.
“I was hoping I could impose on you to accompany me on my visits again this Wednesday. I am still struggling with the names and circumstances of my new congregation.”
“Of course, I would be happy to.” Sara’s smile grew until it ached.
“You are certain it is not an imposition?” he asked, concerned. “I am confident that after this week I will be able to manage on my own.”
“Not at all,” she assured him. “I enjoyed doing the same with my father before he passed.”
“Thank you, Miss Collins,” Mr. Pomeroy said with a slight bow. “I will come to Ridgestone on Wednesday, then.”
Sara continued to smile at him as the carriage moved away. The handsome vicar raised his hand in farewell, waving as they pulled out of the courtyard. Still smiling, Sara settled back into her seat.
“You are embarrassing yourself, Sara.” Louisa’s comment caught her attention.
“Excuse me?” she asked.
“He is just using you, yet you continue to throw yourself at him,” Louisa said.
“Louisa,” Claire began.
But she continued on. “Our reputation is our strongest attribute; if it is not spotless, then we are nothing. Even after a year, we are barely managing to meet our financial obligations. We cannot afford to have even the slightest blemish on our names.”
“Again, allow me to offer financial assistance,” Jacob said, bringing up a long-standing discussion. “I have no qualms about using my fortune to benefit the school.”
Louisa’s narrowed eyes shifted to him. Her jaw set and her mouth flattened. “No. We have discussed this. We have no desire to become dependent upon a man.”
“Louisa,” Claire broke in more firmly this time and returned to the topic at hand. “A connection to the vicar and the church can only help us. Yes, it is a concern, as we do not want Sara to get hurt, but it is her choice how she spends her free time.”
“If you appear too eager, Sara,” Louisa said, “he will not be interested. The opposite will occur.”
“Well, I’m not sure I fully agree with that,” Jacob countered. “Some gentlemen need to be assured of a lady’s interest before doing anything.”
“But that is not my real concern,” Louisa defended herself. “He is using her. How can you not see it?”
Sara turned her head to look at the passing scenery as her friends continued to speak of her as though she were not there. Louisa didn’t understand—none of them did. Assisting a vicar was all she knew, all she was good at. She had loved helping her father before his death; the act of helping those in need brought peace and purpose to her life. Seeing another’s life improve through her efforts gave her a sense of accomplishment.
There was no doubt in her mind: She was meant to be a vicar’s wife.
“See here, what’s this?” Jacob’s statement brought Sara back to the conversation to see him straighten in his seat and crane his neck out to peer beyond the carriage. She and Louisa swiveled in their seats to do the same and saw a gentleman leading a horse along the side of the lane. Both were limping.
“Rogers, stop the carriage,” Jacob ordered. He hopped out as soon as he was able and approached the man.
Sara craned her neck even more to get a better look at the gentleman. His dark clothes were dusty and rumpled and his cravat was flat, but the understated fine quality of his garments was still visible. His hair was hidden under his hat, obviously kept short, although light wisps played at his collar in the slight breeze. Though lanky of build, the man’s shoulders were still broad and his chest was full, exuding strength.
“I wonder who it is,” Claire mused.
Sara shook her head. “I don’t recognize him.”
“Likely just a stranded traveler,” Louisa said. “There’s not much else to draw people to Taft other than repairs.”
They were too far away to hear what the gentlemen were discussing. The stranger gestured to his horse and Jacob responded in kind, motioning toward the carriage. For one frightful moment, Sara thought she would have to endure the anxiety of meeting the man, but thankfully he shook his head, and Jacob then pointed toward the village, obviously giving directions. They ended their conversation with a handshake and Jacob made his way back to the carriage.
Sara’s eyes remained on the gentleman, for once in her life curious of a stranger. He had turned to his horse and was patting its neck, obviously soothing the animal. He was more finely dressed than what they were used to in Taft; perhaps he was from London or somewhere close to there. What was he doing in their little part of the country?
The carriage rocked as Jacob climbed in, breaking Sara’s concentration on the stranger. “What was amiss?” Claire asked.
“His horse threw a shoe and he is going to Taft to have it seen to,” her husband replied.
“I was right,” Louisa said, a triumphant note in her voice.
“You didn’t offer him any help or a ride?” Claire asked, her attention still on Jacob.
He pursed his lips. “Of course I did. He refused.”
“You should have insisted.”
“I cannot and will not force a man to accept my assistance, Claire. I gave him directions to the blacksmith as well as to Ridgestone, should he find himself in need of us.”
“Drive on, Rogers,” Jacob ordered, and the carriage lurched into motion.
Sara looked back at the stranger as they passed. He tipped his hat in thanks and bowed slightly. When he straightened, his blue eyes locked with hers, startling her with their icy hue. The hair on her nape rose in awareness and her skin prickled. A surprised gasp caught in her throat, having not expected him to meet her gaze so intensely while she was in a moving carriage.
Sara jerked her gaze away, breaking the momentary connection with the stranger. Through a dust cloud, she saw him turn toward Taft and resume his journey, both horse and man limping as they receded from her sight.