“Well,” Mr. Pomeroy said as he sat beside Sara in his gig and picked up the reins. “I can honestly say that not many visits have gone worse than that. Indeed, I believe we may have set a new precedent.”
Sara gave him a sympathetic smile and held onto the side as the gig lurched into motion, enjoying how the movement made her side press into his momentarily. “I don’t think it was that bad.”
“Oh no,” he said, “I assure you, this will become material at rectories all over England of how not to conduct visits.”
Sara shook her head. “You cannot be so hard on yourself. Mrs. Simpson was simply not in a good visiting mood. I doubt anyone would be, with an absent husband and three sick children, not to mention the other two who need constant attention.”
The vicar returned her smile, finally. “I am sure she appreciated your finishing up her laundry and putting a loaf of bread in the oven.”
“And your taking the two out for a walk,” Sara returned. “All she needed was a few moments of quiet to herself.”
He sighed. “I will return in a day or two to check on her and see if she needs any more help. And I will let Dr. Moore know of the illness. Perhaps he can do something for the children.”
“That is a good idea. I don’t know if I am able to accompany you then, but I can send along a basket.”
“Oh, I wasn’t suggesting you join me, Miss Collins,” Mr. Pomeroy said, looking at her with earnest brown eyes. “I believe I now have a good grasp on the needy families in the parish.”
Sara’s stomach dropped. Was he implying that her help was no longer needed? Dear heavens, if she didn’t accompany him on these visits, how could she prove to him that she would be a useful wife for a vicar? She swallowed and forced herself to speak. “That is good.”
Oh bother, that was more of a squeak than her voice. Mr. Pomeroy looked at her with concern in his eyes. “Are you unwell?”
Sara shook her head, unwilling to try and speak again.
His concern did not abate. “I would never forgive myself if you were to take sick after visiting Mrs. Simpson with me.” He reined in the horse and turned to face her, taking her hands in his.
“I am fine,” Sara assured him, though her voice was still little more than a squeak. His hands warmed hers, sending slow frissons of comfort up her wrists. She took a shaky breath and enjoyed the sensation.
“Have I distressed you in any way? I wish I had some water or lemonade to offer you. Your voice is still strange.” He rubbed her hands between his, his eyes filled with concern and anxiety.
Looking into his chocolate eyes, so full of emotion, all on her behalf, filled Sara with a sense of peace and security. He was a good man, a kind man, and would make her a fine husband. Her anxiety eased and her throat cleared, allowing her to speak normally. “Truly, I am well.”
Relief reflected in his eyes. “Thank God.”
She gave him a weak smile. “I am sorry for concerning you.”
Mr. Pomeroy looked at her, his face serious and intent. “The health and well-being of all my parishioners are my concern, Miss Collins. I would not be able to forgive myself if you were harmed while helping me with my work.”
“I should not have put you into a situation where you were at risk. We are fortunate that nothing serious occurred. We must be more cautious in the future.”
Sara bent her head and looked at her hands, still being held in his. She ran her thumb over his, marveling at how soft and large they were.
His concern warmed her heart and she smiled to herself. Louisa was wrong; he did care for her. How could he express such worry over her well-being if he did not have some affection for her? She needed him to know, however, that she was up to the task of being a vicar’s wife.
Sara raised her eyes and met his gaze. “I am sorry for causing you concern, Mr. Pomeroy. But I assure you, in my experience of helping my father, I have seen and been exposed to much worse than the colds of Mrs. Simpson’s children.”
Mr. Pomeroy’s eyes held a rueful quality as the anxiety left them. He smiled at her. “I suppose that is true. I keep forgetting that you have more experience at this than I do.”
They shared a smile for a long moment. It was the horse nickering that broke them apart. Mr. Pomeroy suddenly seemed to realize he was still holding her hands and dropped them, an embarrassed look coming over his face. He picked up the reins again and once more set the gig in motion.
“Are we returning to Ridgestone?” Sara asked after several moments of quiet.
He pursed his lips. “There is one more visit I was planning on making and it is directly on the way to Ridgestone. Would you mind terribly if you accompanied me? I can return you home if you would prefer.”
She smiled. “Of course not. Whom would we be visiting?”
“The new owner of Windent Hall. He arrived just the other day and I wish to welcome him to the village.”
“Oh.” A new person in the neighborhood. The usual nervous ants started walking around her throat, making her feel queasy. She took a breath to regain some sort of control. She was a grown woman, for heaven’s sake. It was far past time to be so affected by the thought of meeting someone new.
Besides¸ she thought, looking at the vicar, the last person I met was Mr. Pomeroy and look how well that has turned out. She cleared her throat. “Do you know what his name is?”
“Mr. Nathan Grant, recently from London.”
Mr. Grant. A new neighbor. She could do this. Mr. Pomeroy was here to help her.
Sara nodded. Yes, she could do this.
Mr. Pomeroy helped her down from the gig and Sara took a long look at Windent Hall. Curtains covering the windows shielded the interior from a visitor’s view, lending the building a cold and unwelcoming front. Rotted trees and dead grass lined the driveway and cracks were visible along the red brickwork; piles of crumbled mortar littered the edge of the manor house and even the front portico was listing to the side, on the verge of toppling over.
The place reeked of neglect, which was to be expected after thirty years of vacancy. What Sara hadn’t expected was the blanket of loneliness that shrouded the house, adding to the chilly ambiance. She couldn’t help feeling that it had been calling out to be noticed, only to be ignored that much longer.
She couldn’t suppress the shiver that ran down her body.
Sara turned to Mr. Pomeroy as he offered his arm. “Are you certain we should be here? We are uninvited.”
He led her gingerly up the front steps. “Even so, I feel it is my duty to welcome him to the community. One can see that taking on this place is a task of great proportions. He needs to know that he is welcomed here and be informed of the local tradesmen and laborers available.”
His logic was sound. But she couldn’t stop from wincing when the door protested his banging with a loud crack in the middle. Mr. Pomeroy and Sara shared a glance. He grimaced apologetically.
The door creaked open, only to stop partway. A muffled curse was heard from the other side and eight fingers appeared in the opening. Grunting started as whoever was on the other side started to pull. Mr. Pomeroy shrugged and added his efforts in pushing. With a loud squeal, the door inched open until Sara and the vicar were able to pass through.
They stepped into a dark foyer, dust covers over everything, including a large chandelier and all the wall sconces. The man who had opened the door was walking away down a corridor on one side of the main staircase. “I don’t get paid enuff fer this,” they could hear him muttering. He pushed open a door and pointed into the room. “Youse wait in there.” He disappeared farther down the corridor.
Sara stared. Mr. Pomeroy stared. They looked at each other. With another shrug, Mr. Pomeroy started down the corridor and she had little choice but to follow.
It was a parlor, as far as Sara could tell underneath all the dust. The pale green walls were faded and damaged, giving the impression of sickness; no paintings adorned the walls and no other small pieces one expected in a room such at this were evident. The furniture that was not hidden by dustcovers was torn and did not appear strong enough to hold any weight whatsoever. She sat on the sofa gingerly, hoping it would not give out underneath her.
“Perhaps we should not have come today,” she whispered to Mr. Pomeroy. “It does not appear Mr. Grant is prepared to receive visitors of any sort.”
The vicar acknowledged her point with an incline of his head. “We are here now, however. We will not stay long, simply offer our welcome and depart.”
They had been waiting in the sparse room for nearly twenty-five minutes before she heard a tapping out in the corridor. It drew closer and Sara turned her head to the door, wondering what was causing the sound. A gold tip struck the floor at the threshold and Sara’s eyes followed a black shaft upward to a matching gold head shaped into the form of a wolf’s head. The head was loosely grasped by lean fingers, confident of their ability to control the cane.
Her eyes continued to rise, taking in the brown coat, striped waistcoat and snowy white cravat before reaching the gentleman’s face. Her eyes widened in recognition and her breath caught in her throat when she realized that the man was none other than the stranded traveler from a few days prior.
Up close and stationary, his icy blue eyes were even paler and at this moment, the bloodshot orbs exuded barely concealed disdain that made her even more aware of their lack of invitation to visit. She barely registered the ants in her throat, for she was too riveted on his face.
Her eyes ran over his Norman features, taking in his sharp cheekbones and straight nose. His mouth was an uncompromising line over a powerful chin. Hair the color of wheat lay in masculine disarray on his head, with slightly darker sideburns threatening to encroach farther down his prominent jawline.
His eyes mesmerized her. They were the color of a clear winter’s sky, the complete circles of white surrounding his pupils solidifying the impression of ice lining his gaze. Small creases stretched out from the corner of his eyes, matched by ones bracketing his mouth, flexing with every little grimace he made. Sara wondered if Mr. Pomeroy noticed the amount of strain the man was experiencing.
Unconsciously, Sara rose from the sofa with the desire to run her hand over his face and smooth those lines away, comforting him. Where that thought came from, she did not know.
Mr. Pomeroy’s voice broke the spell. “Good afternoon, sir. Are you Mr. Grant?”
Sara saw Mr. Grant’s eyes flicker over the young vicar, assessing him in at a glance. He looked at Mr. Pomeroy for several moments in silence. “I am Grant,” he finally replied, his voice even and impersonal.
The vicar bowed in greeting. “Welcome to Taft, sir. Permit me to introduce myself. I am Mr. Charles Pomeroy, the vicar.”
“I am not a churchgoing man, Mr. Pomeroy.” Despite the rudeness of his statement, his intonations were deep and well-bred, sending a foreign sensation down Sara’s spine.
The only reaction Mr. Pomeroy displayed was a slow blink. He continued to smile. “While that saddens me, this is more of a social call than a spiritual one. The only connection this visit has to the church is that I am the vicar. I merely wished to welcome you to Taft.”
Mr. Grant inclined his head once. “Thank you. You may leave now.” He turned on his heel and his cane struck the floor as he moved to exit the room.
The vicar spoke quickly. “Permit me to introduce Miss Collins. She lives on the neighboring estate, Ridgestone, with her friends and is an active member of the parish. She is always willing to help out wherever she is needed.”
Mr. Pomeroy beamed at her and Sara curtseyed, still not shifting her gaze from the newcomer.
Mr. Grant stilled and slowly turned on his heel again to face his visitors. His eyes focused on her, this time examining her closely. His focus dropped to her slippers peeking out from under skirts before moving insolently up her body, pausing to linger on her generous hips and bosom before coming to rest on her face.
The shock of his perusal jolted Sara out of her trance. The usual self-consciousness reared its head and she flushed, dropping her head to study the floor. The ants in her throat were noticeable this time.
“Miss Collins.” His deep voice floated over to her, cold and devoid of emotion.
“Mr. Grant.” Her reply was little more than a strangled whisper.
His next words were directed at Mr. Pomeroy. “Is the church in need of anything? A new steeple or hymnals, by any chance?”
“Of course the church will accept any generosity offered,” the vicar replied. “There are always needs to be met in the community.”
“Poor orphans and all that, hmm?”
“Um.” Sara could see Mr. Pomeroy shift in the corner of her eye. He cleared his throat. “There is no orphanage in the area, but I could make inquiries into the closest one, if you wish to patronize one. Or one of a specific nature, if you have a particular cause in mind.”
“And what incentive am I to be offered?”
“Excuse me?” Sara couldn’t see the vicar’s face, but judging from his voice, the question surprised him.
“What will you offer to induce me to part with my money?” Mr. Grant asked, his voice remaining even and impersonal. Sara saw his fingers flex around his wolf’s-head cane. They gripped the head so tightly his fingers were turning white.
“The Bible teaches that good works are their own reward,” Mr. Pomeroy replied.
“So no private pew? No dedication in my honor?”
“Well, there may be—”
“Or perhaps some intimate time with a certain parishioner who is always willing to help out wherever she is needed?”
Sara’s head snapped up at that comment and she felt all the blood drain from her face. Heavens, she did not just hear that.
Silence reigned, Grant’s words echoing in the quiet, confirming that he had indeed said it. Mr. Pomeroy’s eyes darted to her, his eyes widening.
“Um,” he cleared his throat, visibly uncomfortable. Taking a deep breath, he drew himself up. “I did not say that. I would never suggest something so immoral.”
One side of Mr. Grant’s mouth tilted in a sardonic smile. “I have heard far more immoral suggestions from men of God.”
Mr. Pomeroy did not back down. “Yet I would never suggest something so immoral, sir, and it is inappropriate for you to make such a comment. I believe you owe Miss Collins an apology.”
Mr. Grant took a step toward him, the tap of his cane ringing in the room. “You enter my home uninvited with an unmarried woman, make vague innuendo with poorly chosen words, and you have the audacity to speak to me of impropriety? The apology is yours to make.”
Cold violence was seeped into his words, lowering the temperature even more. The innuendo he claimed Mr. Pomeroy had made clearly struck a nerve with the man.
Mr. Pomeroy was silent for a moment. When he spoke, it was with a quiet, calm voice, a vicar’s voice. “I do not know what occurred in your past to make you so cynical sir, but even in my short time in Taft, I have appreciated the innocence and sincerity of the area. People here do not have ulterior motives. When we offer something as simple as a neighborly welcome, then that is all being offered. I regret that you cannot accept this at face value and pray that you may find in this community the healing your soul needs.”
Mr. Grant returned his gaze to Sara, his mouth twisting into that sardonic smile again. “I daresay this is exciting for you, is it not? To have two men defending your honor?”
Sara did not answer; she could not. She had no words for such a situation.
He looked at Mr. Pomeroy. “You found your way in here; you can find your way out.” He spun on his heel and left the room, leaning heavily on his cane. The tapping receded down the corridor.
After several beats of silence, Mr. Pomeroy looked at Sara. “I deeply regret you were exposed to that, Miss Collins. Once again I find myself setting a new precedent for horrible visits.”
Sara dropped her head again, grasping her hands in front of her. She heard the vicar move and felt him draw near to her. His voice was gentle when he spoke to her again, his near presence a welcome warmth after the chill of the experience. “Come, I will take you home.”
She nodded and accepted his escort out of Windent Hall.