Sara poured herself a cup of lemonade, grimacing against the warm, sour drink. An early-summer assembly was not known for chilled refreshments, but that did not deter the majority of Taft from attending. She looked at the dancers lining up in their sets and her eyes met those of Mr. Pomeroy, partnering a young lady at her first social affair. He smiled at Sara, which she obediently returned. He had been a daily visitor at Ridgestone since her return from Cloverfields more than seven days ago; he had yet to ask the question that everyone but her was anticipating, but Sara now felt on intimate terms with each member of his family and the details of his childhood.
She still hadn’t come to a decision regarding her dilemma and she knew it was not well done of her. But the confliction was hard to overcome. Her mind knew that Charles Pomeroy was a good man and would make her a good husband, but those thoughts seemed far away when the man wasn’t in front of her. When he was, she fought to not compare what he said with that of another’s blunt conversation. She even had moments of wanton rebellion, thinking that if the vicar would kiss her, she would be able to make her decision simpler.
But of course he didn’t kiss her. He respected her too much to do more than escort her with her hand on his sleeve. There were moments, flickers in his eyes, where Sara thought she might have glimpsed actual male desire in him, but those were short lived and fleeting, and made her question the confidence she had gained at Cloverfields.
There she had not doubted her appeal, not doubted Nathan’s lust for her. Nor hers for him. You happen to be my preference, Nymph. I like that you are more than a cliché.
Sara washed his voice away with more lemonade and refilled her glass. She studiously watched the dancers as they spun around the room, oblivious to her thoughts. Jacob was dancing with Claire for a scandalous fourth time, Louisa with a middle-aged father, and Mr. Pomeroy with that young debutante. The tepid lemonade slipped down her throat again and she moved to pick up a lobster patty.
Something brushed her skirts and Sara looked down, seeing a bony arm sneaking out from under the tablecloth, the attached hand curving up to search the table. Securing a handful of biscuits, the hand vanished under the table again.
Her brow furrowed with curiosity, she knelt down and lifted the tablecloth, revealing Robert and Daniel Simpson, the two eldest of an abandoned mother struggling to raise her five children. The family was one of her and Mr. Pomeroy’s weekly visits.
“Hello there,” she said softly.
The boys stared back at her, Daniel’s small hands strangling the handle of their basket. Glancing in it, Sara saw different foods from the table. She looked into their wide eyes, recognizing the fear and hunger.
“You needn’t hide under here,” she continued, keeping her voice soft. “I would be happy to help you fill your basket. Come.” She lifted the tablecloth higher and stretched her hand toward Robert, encouraging him to come out with his brother.
Uncertainty warred in his eyes, battling with what he knew of her and his mother’s admonishment to not get caught. She held her hand patiently, not moving her gaze from his. When he lifted his hand and put it into hers, she smiled at him and helped him and his brother move from their hiding spot.
“Now,” Sara said, her hands on their bony shoulders, “point to what you would like and we will put it into your basket. Your mother will be so proud of how much food you bring home.”
After a moment of hesitation, Robert pointed to the lobster patties. Smiling, Sara took some and placed them in the basket. Taking the lead from his brother, Daniel pointed to small pasties and they too were added to the growing pile of food. The boys lost their uncertainty once they realized that Sara had meant what she said.
The basket was almost full when a shrill voice came from the opposite end of the refreshment table. “Miss Collins, stop that at once!”
All three jumped and turned to see Mrs. Glendoe bearing down on them, fury on her face. She continued, “Those ruffians should not be here, let alone stealing the food. And here you are, aiding and abetting them.”
The ants clamored in her throat, growing more vicious the closer Mrs. Glendoe came. Sara sucked in what breath she could, hoping it would be enough to sustain her through this attack. The boys quaked with fear, pressing their trembling bodies into her side. Sara placed her arms around them, hoping they would not bolt and draw more attention to them.
“You ought to know better,” Mrs. Glendoe was saying. “Encouraging them in such behavior. Children are not to be at such events; their mother is not even here. What a neglectful woman. No wonder they are turning to a life of crime.”
Sara swallowed, trying to dislodge some of the ants. “They are—” she squeaked.
“What was that?” Her beady eyes narrowed even more.
Sara cleared her throat and tried again. “They are merely hungry.”
“That is no excuse for theft,” was the shrill reply. “You should be aware of the Biblical commandments, being the daughter of a vicar. Theft is forbidden. I have a good mind to summon the constable.”
Sara took a deep breath, feeling anger well up in her chest. It was one thing to suffer the woman’s attacks; it was another to allow her turn her sights on innocent, hungry children. The anger burned its way up her throat, destroying the ants in its path. “And we are commanded to love our neighbors as ourselves, Mrs. Glendoe, and such to treat them as we would like to be treated. Would you not want someone to offer you food when you are hungry?”
The older lady blinked, the response unexpected. “That hardly diminishes the severity of the situation.”
Sara’s brows rose. “The severity of the situation? Yes, I must agree with you there. It is a severe shame that this town boasts residents who are more than comfortable in their circumstances yet do little to help those who are not, who in fact condemn those very unfortunates when attempting to merely survive another day. While it is true theft is a sin, the greater sin may be found in those who had means to help those in need and did not.”
“Wha—bu—you—” Mrs. Glendoe sputtered.
Sara continued. “These boys are not stealing. They are my guests and I am offering them sustenance, just as you are entitled as a guest. If you find the company intolerable, then may I suggest you leave.”
Sara turned her attention back to the boys, ignoring Mrs. Glendoe’s gaping mouth. “Come gentlemen, shall we continue? You have yet to select any of the sweet cakes.” The boys followed her, their grips continuing to cling to her skirts. She studiously kept her gaze away from the woman, even when she heard the huff and swish of skirts as she stalked away.
Good heavens. Where had that come from? Sara’s head buzzed and she barely registered the boys continuing their quest. Had that even been her who said such things? The ants had disappeared so quickly when that anger bubbled up. She was not accustomed to speaking to others, particularly her elders, in such a manner; only Nathan had ever provoked such a response from her.
Her eyes careened over the crowd. Had anyone seen the encounter? Seen her disrespect Mrs. Glendoe? But everyone was dancing and laughing and chatting; no one acted as though anything was amiss. No one had seen the horrible miracle that just occurred. She took a deep breath, feeling the relief flow through her.
“That was spectacular, Nymph.”
The deep voice behind her had her jumping again. Sara looked over her shoulder and into the icy blue eyes that gleamed with appreciation. He must have just arrived to the assembly, for she had not seen him earlier.
Nathan continued. “A true Valkyrie, rising to the defense of her brood, attacking the gorgon.”
She swallowed. “I believe you are confusing your mythology. Valkyries are Norse but not warriors, while gorgons are Greek.”
He shrugged. “Does it matter?” His eyes did not leave hers or lose their appreciation.
“And the allusion is disrespectful.”
Nathan tsked. “This coming from the one who just accused the gorgon of selfish neglect. How droll.”
He was in one his moods, she could tell. Sara looked down at the boys and their now full basket. “Have you need of anything else, gentlemen? I should not like the basket to be so heavy you cannot carry it home.”
“Me and Danny are strong, missus,” Robert said, his eyes serious. Daniel nodded his head once in agreement.
“I have no doubt. But it would be a shame to have food fall out of the basket and into the dirt, therefore wasting it, not after you have gone to all this trouble to get it.”
The boys exchanged glances. “I suppose we kin go now,” Robert allowed.
Sara smiled at them. “If your mother would like more, please come and find me. I will make sure you get all the food you need tonight.”
“Thank you, missus.” The boys turned and left, holding the basket between the two of them. At the door, Daniel looked back over his shoulder and gave her a toothy smile, which she returned.
“That was generous of you,” Nathan said in her ear.
“Not particularly. It was just food.”
“I doubt others in the room would have done the same.”
Sara sighed and looked at him. He was handsome in his usual dark clothing, his cane held loosely in his hand. “It has recently been on my mind to do more for them. I think I should talk to the Governess Club about taking them on as charity pupils.”
He cocked a brow. “I thought you were struggling to make ends meet.”
“Louisa is good with the numbers. She may be able to make it possible for us to take them on. It would help their prospects as they get older.”
“And you have resumed your teaching, despite your dislike for it.” He made this a statement, not a question.
“I have an obligation to my friends.”
Nathan regarded her for a long moment, his gaze not wavering. Sara grew uncomfortable under it, her skin prickling with awareness. This man knew every inch of her naked body.
She was gripped by a longing to stand closer to him and feel his heat, to feel his tongue inside her mouth again, his hands in places only he had ever touched. She swayed toward him, every fiber of her being wanting to absorb him.
Recalling where they were, Sara steadied herself and swallowed. “Mr. Pomeroy has been courting me,” she blurted out.
The appreciation in his eyes died, replaced by coldness. “So I have heard,” he drawled.
“He has already danced with me twice this evening.”
“How fortunate for you.”
“He is good and kind.”
“Most vicars are. Seems to be a prerequisite for the vocation.”
Anyone watching them would see two people having a genteel conversation, but Sara knew better. She could feel the shards of ice building up between them, sharp as knives.
But she could not stop herself. She had questioned everything since her return to Ridgestone, so much that it had nigh driven her mad. She could not have imagined everything, could she?
“Do you have nothing to say about this?” she asked, her eyes imploring him to reciprocate her desires.
“Congratulations on your upcoming nuptials, Miss Collins.” He sketched her a shallow bow, his face unreadable.
Her brows rose. “Is that truly all you have to say to me?”
“What else is there?” His voice was even, emotionless.
“I thought—I thought that after that week—”
“What week?” His voice remained the same, but she thought she heard a harsh edge to it. “The one that does not exist? Do not make a fool of yourself, Miss Collins.”
“Did it truly mean nothing to you?” she whispered.
He shrugged and scanned the crowd beginning to gather for another set. “It was a short affair, nothing more.”
“But I thought—”
He returned his gaze to hers, his eyes colder than she had ever seen them. “Thought what? That I would toss you over my shoulder and whisk you off to Scotland? Or stand up during your wedding ceremony and say that you can’t marry him? Promise you a happily ever after? Get your head out of the clouds. I am not that sort of fellow. We both got what we wanted—you had your taste of adventures and I had my bedding without the wedding. There is nothing more to it.”
Sara stared at him, her heart frozen in place. This was not the man she had been with at Cloverfields. Had he been an illusion? Or merely patronizing her to get what he wanted, tossing her morsels of compassion and understanding so long as she warmed his bed?
Oh good heavens. Sara felt her knees weaken as the reality of what she did finally settled in. She had even been fooling herself for this past week that he had been harboring a secret affection for her, as she did for him. She had fallen in love with a man who saw her as nothing more than a conquest. He must be spending his nights laughing at her and thanking his lucky stars they had not been caught.
Nausea bubbled up in her and Sara swayed, her vision blurring. She reached to steady herself on the table.
“Miss Collins?” She looked up and saw the dark figure move toward her. But it was not Nathan’s voice speaking. “Miss Collins, what is the matter?”
“Mr. Pomeroy,” she croaked. “I fear I may be unwell.”
“Shall I fetch Mr. and Mrs. Knightly for you?” He scanned the crowd, looking for her friends.
“No, please. Just some fresh air. That is all I need.”
“Of course.” Sara felt his hands on her shoulders, and she followed his guidance out of the hall and into the small courtyard at the back. He assisted her to a bench where she sat down, her hands over her face. They were in plain view of the large French windows that lined the hall, light spilling out into the groomed area.
How could she have been so wrong about Nathan Grant? He had warned her against making him into an honorable man; it appeared his warning had been justified after all. She had been little more than a plaything to him, a means to his selfish end.
Good heavens, it felt as though her stomach was being cut out. A low moan escaped her.
She had forgotten about Mr. Pomeroy. Just for a moment.
“Are you certain you don’t wish me to fetch Mrs. Knightly? Perhaps Miss Hurst?”
Sara forced herself into an upright position and inhaled deeply, dropping her hands from her face. She willed herself into composure. “I believe I will be fine, Mr. Pomeroy. The fresh air has done the trick. Thank you for your concern.”
The vicar looked at her, his face a mixture of worry and uncertainty. “If you are sure. I find myself disliking seeing you in distress.”
She forced her lips into a small smile, the largest she could manage, hoping to soothe him. “It appears to have been a momentary thing.”
“Tell me truthfully, did anyone say something to upset you? I saw you speaking with Mrs. Glendoe and Mr. Grant during the last set. I know both of them can be trying.”
“No, nothing out of the ordinary,” she assured him. “It might have been the lobster patties, though.”
Mr. Pomeroy frowned, not looking convinced. “Mrs. Glendoe can be a bit of a trial, especially toward you. She appears to be vindictive where you are concerned.”
She glanced down at her hands, now neatly folded on her lap, the picture of serenity. Her voice was quiet when she spoke. “That is an unkind statement.” True, nevertheless.
He took a deep breath. “That is correct. Forgive me. Not for my statement, but for my lack of regret when it comes to defending you.”
Sara’s eyes flew up to his face. It was more serious than she had ever seen it, his jaw looking at though it were made from stone. “Excuse me?”
His jaw worked. “I don’t think it has been a secret these past few days, Miss Collins, but I have come to care for you as more than just a parishioner. It makes me uneasy to think that there are people who would seek to cause you distress and I fear it brings out the baser side of my nature. I wish to protect you from such people, if I may.”
Oh good heavens. It was happening. Now?
He continued speaking. “I had planned this to be more circumspect, but this . . . indignation I feel on your behalf makes my need to speak to you more urgent.”
Mr. Pomeroy ran a hand through his hair. “I didn’t expect to feel this nervous.”
“Nervous?” Her voice squeaked.
“Surely you know what I am about to ask you.”
“I do?” Her eyes moved frantically over the courtyard trying to find a means of escape, a way to prolong her purgatory before having to face this impossible decision. Not now, she couldn’t do this now. She tried to stand, but the vicar placed a hand on her shoulder, the gentle pressure keeping her on the bench.
“Miss Collins, our time apart was revealing and I feel as though I have woken up from a sleep where you are concerned. Even now, seeing you every day, I find myself counting the moments until I can see you again and wondering what you are doing when we are apart.”
“Mr. Pomeroy—” Their presence in the courtyard had been noted by some of the assembly attendees. Curious faces appeared at various windows. Sara could see their mouths moving and some hands gesturing.
He gave a nervous laugh. “The speech I had prepared has abandoned me completely. Ironic that I can speak from the pulpit with nary a whisper of nerves, but I daresay this conversation holds more importance to my personal life than any sermon I might deliver. I suppose the best way to do this is to just say it.”
Mr. Pomeroy knelt down on one knee and took her hand in his. He looked at her with earnest, chocolaty eyes and swallowed. “Miss Collins—Sara, if I may—would you do me the great honor of becoming my wife?”
The crowd at the windows had grown, the news of Mr. Pomeroy’s position on his knee spreading to attract the more avid gossips and whoever else was in the vicinity. Faces now pressed against the windows, some flattening on the glass in their eagerness.
Oh good heavens. It was difficult enough to not have a clear head on the matter, but now to have an audience as a witness? The ants began to crawl in her throat.
Sara looked back down at Mr. Pomeroy, waiting patiently, eagerly. He had said he had not planned his proposal to happen this way and she believed him. It was more consideration than Nathan Grant would have shown her in a similar situation. The man might have promised her discretion about their week, but he has since shown his true colors.
Mr. Pomeroy was the opposite of Nathan Grant. He was kind, considerate and steady, traits Nathan had difficulty acknowledging even existed. Marrying the vicar would secure her future, giving her life security and purpose. It did not matter that his eyes were not a mesmerizing cold or that his hand felt limp in hers or that his lips did not promise endless moments of pleasure or that his body did not inspire thoughts of a day in bed.
He was a good man and he would make her a good husband. He would give her appropriate affection and fidelity. She could fill her days with seeing to the vicarage and church, visiting the sick, helping the needy, being an attentive wife, and raising the children, once they were blessed with them. Her life stretched out before her, every day the same.
No adventure in sight.
But wasn’t marriage an adventure in itself?
And it wasn’t Mr. Pomeroy’s fault that any association she had with the word “adventure” led her to think of rolling down hills, eating breakfast in bed and learning how to swim. All with a blue-eyed misanthrope who had charmed her with his blunt honesty and false flattery.
Even if it hadn’t felt false at the time.
You are more than a cliché.
He was skilled at smooth deception, evidenced by her easy confidence in him and his history in politics. He had presented temptation to her on a silver platter and she had not hesitated in sampling it.
Sara was jerked back to the present conversation. “Yes?” What had they been talking about?
A large grin spread over his face and Mr. Pomeroy stood up, drawing her to her feet along with him. “You have made me the happiest man.”
Her eyes widened. Had she just accepted his proposal? Her eyes flew to the audience at the windows. Expressions of delight were on their faces; Claire was smiling broadly at her with Jacob at her back while Louisa’s face was unreadable.
He kept speaking. “We can post the banns this week. I will have to send for another to officiate, but that should not be a problem.”
Dear heavens, it had happened. She had accepted his proposal, even if it was inadvertent. And in front of the entire town. There was no possible escape from this. She could not embarrass him in front of everyone, in front of his congregation; he could not lose face as they watched and still act as their spiritual leader.
He certainly thought she had accepted. “It won’t?”
He shook his head. “No. I am sure Mrs. Knightly and Miss Hurst will help you with all the arrangements. Whatever you want, my darling.”
My darling? So cliché. Sara blinked at Nathan’s voice in her head. You are more than a cliché.
Mr. Pomeroy’s face took on an expectant look. “If I may, I should like to kiss you now. Seal our betrothal with a kiss.” He smiled.
He took her silence as acceptance and leaned down, pressing his lips to her cheek. They were warm and gentle, dry and unremarkable. No excitement danced across her skin, no warming feeling spread through her bones.
Exactly what Nathan Grant felt for her.