Nathan lowered himself at a table near the window that overlooked the busy green in the center of Taft, careful not to spill any of his ale. The man at the mercantile shop, Mr. Yardley, had said he needed an hour to gather the supplies Nathan requested of him, so a visit to the local pub for lunch seemed a good idea. At present, none had done more than look at him, which suited him fine.
A flash of yellow across the green caught his eye. Someone was coming out of the church across the green, carrying empty baskets. Two people, actually, a female in a yellow dress and the vicar, judging by the black clothing.
Nathan’s stomach tightened. Miss Collins. He knew it was her; that mouth-watering figure could belong to no other person. He watched as the vicar helped her load the empty baskets into her cart. They stood a respectable distance apart, but by the way she tilted her head at the man, and the way the vicar stood with his hands on his hips, Nathan knew they were having more than a pastoral conversation. Tension gripped his shoulders and he scowled into his ale.
“How does your horse fare?”
Nathan looked up, scowl still on his face, at a tall man with blue eyes and broad shoulders. Dressed well, he carried a pint of his own. Nathan recognized him as the man who had offered him assistance when his horse had thrown a shoe.
He sat down across from Nathan and continued speaking. “It doesn’t take a week to fix a shoe, so either there was something more seriously wrong or the town grew on you so quickly you could not leave.” He saluted with his pint. “That has been known to happen.”
Nathan started at him before shaking his head ruefully with a chuckle. “My horse is fine.”
The man leaned back in his chair, a victorious smile on his face. “So it was the town.”
“Something like that,” Nathan allowed. “I am the new owner of Windent Hall.”
“Ah, my new neighbor. Jacob Knightly, of Ridgestone.” Knightly offered his hand.
Nathan took it and shook it, introducing himself. The handshake stilled, but Knightly didn’t release his hand. “Nathan Grant, the parliamentarian?”
Nathan stared at their clasped hands until Knightly released his grip and scowled into his ale again, sullen once more. Hell and damnation. He had hoped this miniscule town would be a safe haven from all of that, but it appeared he was wrong.
Knightly took a swig of his ale. “What brings you to Taft? Last I heard, you were on the road to prime minister.”
“I have retired from public life,” Nathan muttered, drinking deeply.
“Oh? Why is that?” Knightly looked at him curiously.
Nathan gave him a baleful glare. “Jacob Knightly, second son of the Duke of Maberly?”
It was Knightly’s turn to tense. “Yes,” he admitted cautiously.
Nathan furthered his attack. “What was your moniker? The Earl of Escapades? Had to marry a mouse of a governess after ruining her? How goes the squeaky clean life of a country gentleman, hmm?”
Knightly’s face darkened but his response was interrupted by the boy bringing Nathan his pie. Glancing back and forth between the glaring gentlemen, he didn’t linger for an extra coin but scampered off quickly.
The stare was held for several long moments until Knightly gave one slow nod. “I believe we understand each other.”
Nathan picked up his fork and poised to break into his chicken and mushroom pie. “Excellent.”
Before he could break into his pie, a strong hand manacled his wrist and Nathan looked into the dangerous eyes of an angry husband. “But utter one word against my wife,” Knightly growled, “and you will—”
Knightly looked up to see the petite brunette in a blue dress. Nathan’s wrist was promptly released as the man stood up. “You were finished quickly.”
The lady looked at him with caution. Nathan rose as well. “Yes,” she said, “Mrs. Pennystone couldn’t fit me in today. I made an appointment for next week.”
“Claire,” Knightly said, “this is Mr. Nathan Grant, our new neighbor at Windent Hall. Grant, my wife.”
“Mrs. Knightly,” he greeted with a bow.
The lady smiled at him and Nathan could understand why Knightly had married the governess after all. “Mr. Grant, welcome to Taft,” she said in a calm, steady voice.
They exchanged small talk for several minutes, Mrs. Knightly even managing to extract a promise to dine with them, before Knightly said, “I believe we are keeping the man from his lunch.”
“Oh,” she said, glancing down at the cooling pie. “My apologies. Would you care to join us?”
“Thank you but no,” Nathan refused politely. “I am needed elsewhere shortly and will not make good company.” Take the bloody hint, Mrs. Knightly.
She smiled at him. “Very well, but do not forget that dinner invitation. I will send over a letter confirming the date.”
He bowed to her. “Indeed.”
The couple selected a table on the other side of the room, and Nathan sat back down and began to eat. He could see the two in the corner of his eye, conversing comfortably. Knightly didn’t seem put out by his marriage to this country governess; indeed, he seemed to be enjoying himself.
Nathan was halfway through his pie when a flurry of yellow movement had him choking on his food. He had forgotten that Miss Collins had told him she lived with the Knightlys and now she was here, in the pub, approaching their table with the damned vicar trailing behind her, a puppy dog look in his eye.
Oh bloody hell.
She sat next to her friend, exchanging smiles. The vicar shook hands with Knightly and bowed to Mrs. Knightly before joining their table.
Nathan couldn’t stop looking at his Nymph. Smiles abounded at the table, gestures overflowed and laughter was in abundance. She did not speak often, but it was enough to rivet Nathan with the way her lips formed her words. He swallowed, wondering how she would taste if he were to walk over there and kiss her senseless in front of everyone. Would the inevitable facer from Knightly be worth it? I would stake a monkey on it.
Their meals arrived, but did not slow their conversation. He watched as Miss Collins picked at her food, taking small bites, each one disappearing into her mouth. Several times her eyes closed in a slow blink as she ate, as though she was consumed with ecstasy, a look that caused his mouth to dry and his trousers to tighten.
She must have felt his unwavering gaze, for at one moment she glanced his way and froze when their eyes connected. He didn’t move, didn’t smile, didn’t do anything but hold her gaze. Her gray eyes widened and a mixture of fear and uncertainty entered them before being washed away by something worse: kindness.
Miss Collins offered him a small smile and with a slight gesture with her hand, unnoticed by her companions, invited him to join their table. Why would she do that after how I treated her? How could she forgive me for being so damned callous with her?
For one moment, a need so strong overtook him, blinding him with the desire to be the vicar, to be a man good enough for her. To be able to come to her as an honorable man and claim her as his own.
Reality crashed over him when their connection was broken by something said to her. When she looked away, Nathan felt his face twist into what was becoming his customary scowl. Standing, he jammed his hat on his head and retrieved his cane, ignoring the hollow feeling in his chest. He left his half-eaten lunch and made his way out the pub door, feeling her eyes on him but refusing to look at her.
By the time he passed outside the window, she was once again laughing with her friends.
And the goddamn bloody vicar.