“My lady, perhaps the vicar is counseling one of the members of his flock and can’t be disturbed.” Avalon’s lady’s maid, Henrietta Calvert, twisted her fingers together in a knot. Four years older than Avalon, the petite woman had been a comfort over the years. “I’ve heard it’s a pleasure to look at him,” Henri added. “Handsome as the devil, some say.”
“Hush, Henri,” Avalon lightly admonished. “Remember Lucifer was the most handsome of all angels until he was cast out of heaven. Then he became a monster.”
Henri nodded, and Avalon smiled in reassurance.
She couldn’t lose Henri to the insidious charms of the vexatious vicar. Her maid had been with her since Avalon’s introduction into society. Loyal didn’t begin to describe Henri’s devotion, and Avalon felt the same about Henri. She’d have never survived the last month of her pregnancy if it hadn’t been for Henri. After the midwife had ordered complete bed rest, Henri had stayed by her side night and day.
“I won’t be dissuaded in my work by a new young vicar, and neither will you.” Avalon’s toe tapped in a sharp pattern against the wooden floor of the vicarage entry. It was beyond the pale for Mr. Farris to keep her waiting for fifteen minutes, but perhaps her maid was correct. Perhaps someone in their community needed guidance.
Mentally, Avalon went through those who currently needed a little extra attention.
There was one family in Thistledown that Avalon constantly worried about. They’d suffered tremendously over the last several months. Mrs. Annie Dozier, one of the prostitutes who had first settled in the village, had given up her occupation as a light skirt to start a new life. Six months pregnant at the time, she had nowhere to go. So Avalon had taken her in.
James Dozier, one of the Warwyk tenants, had immediately become smitten with Annie and had married her immediately. It had been a match made in heaven. Though Byrnn wasn’t
James’s son, he’d treated the boy as his own. But fate wasn’t kind to the couple. James died five months ago from a head injury after falling off their barn while he’d repaired the roof. James Dozier could only be described as strong and rugged, but after lingering for several days, he’d succumbed to death, leaving Annie pregnant once again and their son, one-year-old Byrnn, alone. Annie and Byrnn had struggled mightily to make ends meet this winter.
Avalon had taken to visiting weekly with a basket containing enough food to last the week. It was a small thing, but Avalon enjoyed her weekly visit with the two. Holding the squirming Byrnn in her arms, Avalon thought of all the times she’d held and cuddled with Thane, the only good thing to have come from her marriage.
“Lady Warwyk, Mr. Farris will see you now,” Mrs. McVey, the vicarage’s longtime housekeeper, announced. She held a tray in her hands with freshly baked cinnamon and current buns along with a fresh pot of tea.
“Thank you.” Avalon stood, then followed the housekeeper to the vicar’s study. She really didn’t need the escort as she’d visited the elderly vicar, Mr. Knightley, literally hundreds of times over the last ten years as they worked on various projects together. A devout and fair man, he’d proven to Avalon that a few men were worth their weight in gold. Mr. Knightley had whole-heartedly accepted Avalon and her need to help these women. When he’d retired and moved to his daughter’s home in Brighton, it’d been a loss for their community.
The study door stood open, and Mrs. McVey entered with the tray.
Avalon stopped in the hallway and turned to Henri. “Ask for a cup of tea from Mrs. McVey. Keep her in the kitchen for as long as you can.”
Henri’s eyes narrowed in understanding. “You don’t have to ask twice, my lady. I’ll keep her entertained for as long as necessary. All I have to do is ask about her nephew in Perth.” Henri shook her head and smiled. “She’ll not let me get a word in edgewise for at least an hour.”
“I’m hoping I won’t need that long,” Avalon whispered, ensuring that they weren’t overheard. With the offer she planned to make, she had little doubt that Mr. Farris would agree to anything she said. It should only take ten minutes to have him eating out of her hand.
She inched her chin up, then proceeded into the vicar’s study, summoning forth every ounce of courage and persuasive ability she possessed. As Mrs. McVey fussed with the tea tray on a small table between two chairs, the black-haired, green-eyed devil looked up from the papers on his desk, then captured her gaze.
For several moments, they appraised one another like one combatant does with another before an epic battle. Well, he didn’t have to worry about her just yet. She’d not unsheathe her weapons unless absolutely necessary. If he played nice, then she’d play nice too.
Slowly, with a deliberate insouciance and an impertinent smile to match, Mr. Farris walked around his desk to greet her. “What a delightful treat to have tea with a member of my new flock today. How did I get so lucky? Lady . . .”
She tightened her stomach as if preparing for a blow.
“. . . Warwyk.”
Over the years they’d met one another at various social engagements. It was an understatement to say they were never pleasant. He’d always privately called her Lady Warlock after she’d jilted his best friend, William Cavensham. Too many times to count, she’d wanted to inform him why she’d been forced to jilt William. But really, would he understand? Or just think her complacent in her deceased parents’ scheme for wealth and prestige?
Both of her parents had succumbed to an illness several years ago, but her mother’s words still gnawed through her thoughts when she thought of her marriage to Richard. “Climb the ladder of the peerage until you find the highest-ranking unmarried lord, marry him, then beget an heir and a spare. After you satisfy that sole duty, then you’re free to do whatever you want.”
She released the breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.
As if the vicar knew that he’d unsettled her, he graced her with a smile that would have charmed Lucifer and his minions if they were in attendance. Such a grin emphasized his full lower lip. Because the fierce winter wind was relentless in its pounding of flesh, the majority of people suffered from cracked and chapped lips. His looked perfect. An intense urge made her want to reach out and touch his lips with her fingers to see if they were as soft as they appeared.
Instead, she licked her lower lip to gauge the condition of her own.
She shook her head once. “No.”
The gleam in his green eyes seemed to suggest he wasn’t talking about biscuits or scones. His eyes were one of his most striking features. Large and seemingly endless in their green depths, they reminded her of a lush forest inviting one to rest and forgot one’s worries. His features could only be described as angelic. His straight nose fit the shape of his face. Dimples graced both sides of his mouth when he smiled.
He looked like a royal prince with his bearing.
Much like the Prince of Darkness.
This was pure madness that had possessed her. Why was she mooning over his eyes? She doubled her determination to see this through. She had a mission, and nothing would deter her from it.
Somehow, she’d forgotten how tall he was. He’d reached her side and currently stood towering over her. He took her hand in his and slightly bowed over it. Though she wore gloves, the heat from his hand seeped through the kidskin leather. As if scorched, she yanked her hand from his.
What was the matter with her? He was the enemy.
Six months ago, they’d met at the wedding breakfast party for William and his lovely bride, Lady Theodora Eanruig. Avalon had relished being invited to the breakfast as it meant that all was forgiven between her and William. Though he was her third cousin since their great-grandfathers were brothers, he’d been a suitor for her hand when she was seventeen, until her parents had squashed that dream like a rotten potato.
But the breakfast wasn’t without its problems. Mr. Farris had sat next to her and teased her throughout the meal and accompanying toasts from family members. When he’d called her the despicable nickname of Lady Warlock, she’d been tempted to toss her glass of champagne in his face. She’d gone as far as picking it up.
But when she’d seen the love on William’s and Theodora’s faces, she had forced herself to take a sip, then set it down. How uncouth to upset their special day because of the vicar’s rudeness.
“Thank you for tea, Mrs. McVey,” Mr. Farris said without taking his gaze from Avalon.
As if nailed to the floor, Avalon didn’t move. He’d have to retreat first.
“Where are my manners? Lady Warwyk, please forgive me. Do come in.” He waved a hand to the two chairs that sat in front of a cozy fire. Between them, an old but sturdy Chippendale table held the tea service. Two hot steaming cups of tea sat side by side on the tray. He picked up one, then raised one brow in question.
“No sugar, just cream, please.” By now, the gallop of her heartbeat had slowed to a barely controlled canter. His hand dominated the saucer and teacup. Seemingly unaware of the turmoil playing havoc with Avalon, he handed the cup to her.
“Something to eat?” he asked.
She shook her head instead of answering.
He didn’t serve himself. Instead, he turned slightly in his chair and regarded her. That was her cue to start the conversation. Carefully, she sat the teacup on the table and met his gaze.
“Let’s not make this any more uncomfortable than it currently is.” Avalon pasted a slight smile on her lips. “I received a letter from your brother today, along with some unsettling news.”
“I see. How may I assist you?” He didn’t blink or smile. The seriousness of his countenance caused her to momentarily consider fleeing the study. But that wouldn’t serve anyone’s interests.
“I’ll come right to the point. I don’t approve of you as the new parish vicar.”
His eyes blazed for a moment, but she’d not back down.
“Let me explain. The Warwyk marquisate has invested heavily in building the parish and community. Your renowned talent for helping troubled parishes would be wasted here. Personally, I’m committed to the care and safekeeping of these people and have done so for the last ten years. This is an idyllic place with bright prospects for all the residents. Frankly, we just don’t need someone like you here.”
His eyes softened, and he nodded his head, giving her hope that convincing him to do her bidding wouldn’t be difficult. “I can understand how unsettling this must be for you.”
The empathy in his voice emboldened her. “Even the church must see your time should be devoted to another parish, one that needs firm guidance.” She released a pent-up breath. “We’ve a lovely women’s auxiliary group which meets weekly to find ways of helping those who need a hand. We’re a close community who pride ourselves on helping those who have fallen on hard times.”
He nodded again, and a slight grin creased his lips. His green eyes had darkened in color.
“Pride is a dangerous trait, my lady.” The words sounded harmless, but she heard the threat in his mellifluous baritone. It was a warning shot to take heed. She stiffened her spine just as the vicar stood and then walked to the fireplace. With his back turned, he fed another log into the fire, then adjusted the burning ones with a poker.
While he tended the fire, her gaze traveled the length of his breeches as she studied his long and muscular legs. The remarkable definition in his calves resulted from hard physical work and not just walking from one parishioner’s home to another. What could he possibly work on that would cause his muscles to be so defined? His legs fascinated her, and her fingers itched to touch them.
Her palms grew wet while her pulse pounded at the sight of his body. It was simply sinful on her part to ogle him. Long ago, she put aside her cravings for the physical touch of a man. Now those cravings roared to life at the most inopportune time. She was practically salivating over the new vicar’s haunches—she closed her eyes—their soon-to-be former vicar—that’s all she had to remember.
Normally, she’d always thought of the vicar’s study as a comfy and cozy place whenever she’d visited Mr. Knightley. However, with Mr. Farris in the room, it had shrunk in space, and everything within it set her on edge.
He set her on edge.
“Are you warm enough, Lady Warwyk?” He had turned from tending the fire and stood staring at her. Slowly, that devilish smile of his spread across his full lips. He taunted her as if he knew exactly what she was thinking.
She schooled her unease as best as she could. “Indeed. I’m not cold.”
“I never thought you were,” he practically purred like a large cat playing with its prey.
She would not let him unsettle her any further. “Mr. Farris, we’re God-fearing people in this village. We’ve enough trials and tribulations to handle on a daily basis. Your placement in the community is simply a poor match. I’m sure you understand.”
“I do,” he soothed.
When he walked back to his chair, she couldn’t help but notice the exquisite cut of his morning coat. It fit him like a glove, and the buttons reflected the firelight as if gleaming in approval of him.
Avalon took a sip of her tea in a desperate attempt to regain her bearings. No matter how handsome Mr. Farris was, she couldn’t let her thoughts drift anymore. “I’m a fair person, and I won’t let you go away empty-handed. I’ll give you a cash settlement to leave and provide a stipend until you acquire another parish better suited to you.”
Mr. Farris’s brow drew into neat lines. “But I’ve been appointed to lead this parish. Only my brother and the bishop can change my appointment.”
“I’ll write the bishop and explain the circumstances. I have little doubt you’ll be assigned a new parish within the month. Since I’m in a generous mood, I’ll pay your stipend for two years. You could use the money and hire a curate to take your place until you’re ready. Perhaps you could travel or”—she waved her hand in the air—“something.”
“Or something?” Resting his arm on the back of the chair, he studied the fire.
Eventually, a tenuous but somewhat peaceable quiet enveloped the room, occasionally interrupted by the crack of a log breaking in the fire. Avalon allowed herself to relax. The vicar had never made it a secret that he wanted to marry an heiress, which meant he was motivated by money.
“My offer is generous. As soon as you accept, I’ll contact my solicitor and have the papers drawn up.”
He turned to her and flashed a brilliant smile, one that bespoke his ready acceptance. Avalon smiled in return.
“Your generosity knows no bounds, my lady.” He leaned toward her as if to speak with her intimately.
She matched his movements, anxious for his agreement. When their gazes caught, he studied her with such an intensity that she believed he could see every fear, hope, and want she possessed. Something tugged deep inside her chest, and she tried to ignore it, but the pull became more powerful, more resolute. Perhaps it represented the constant loneliness that shadowed her every day of her adult life.
But she feared it was more. This man might have the power to peel a layer from her very essence, one that she’d carefully cultivated to protect herself. Never again would she allow herself to be manipulated in the name of other people’s wants and desires. She’d fight Devan Farris with every power she possessed. He’d never discover her secrets. The quicker he left their village, the better it was for all, including her.
He nodded once, and she allowed herself to relax for the first time this morning.
It was done.
“How could I refuse?” He smiled.
Such a simple act emphasized his angular cheekbones and the perfect set of those wide green eyes. Sophia and Penelope had declared him handsome. Unfortunately, Avalon completely agreed.
“Excellent. Until you’re reassigned, I’ll allow you to tutor my son. That’ll add additional monies to your savings.” She relaxed slightly and smiled. “I’m so happy that we’ve come to a mutually beneficial resolution.”
“I thought it was for the benefit of the village.” He tilted his head slightly.
“Of course,” she said hastily. “That’s what I meant.”
“My lady.” His voice deepened. “I am truly sorry, but I must decline your generous offer.”
Shaking her head slightly, Avalon must not have heard him correctly. He couldn’t be turning her down. She was offering him the world. Or at least, a nice salary that not many in the church would ever hope to earn. “You mean the tutoring? If you’re not interested, I understand.”
“That’s not it,” he said.
“You mean you must ask permission from the bishop?”
He shook his head with a devilish grin.
“Then you must seek the Earl of Larkton’s permission?”
A deep rumble started in his chest. At first she thought it a growl, then she realized it for what it was. He was laughing. Goose bumps broke out across her arms. Whether it was from the cold or the sudden onset of disquiet, she couldn’t tell. She hadn’t said a single word that could be construed as funny.
Finally, he wiped his hands down his face. His fingers were uncommonly long, and his hands were huge. He leveled the most mesmerizing gaze her way.
“No. My brother always looks out for my best interests as family should.” His voice was so low, it practically sounded like he was humming in a deep baritone. “I refuse because it was you, Lady Warlock, who asked.”
She tightened her stomach at the hateful name. “I know all about you, your hunt for an heiress, and your tomcat ways.” She threw the proverbial gauntlet down and waited for him to accept the challenge. She would not, in no uncertain terms, allow him to stay.
“My reputation precedes me, I see.”
“One well deserved, I have no doubt.” She straightened in her seat. It was time to strike the fatal blow. “Surely, you’ve seen the articles in The Midnight Cryer.”
He nodded with a sly grin that reminded her of a mouser out for a midnight stroll, one on the hunt for perverse pleasure.
She’d not let him succeed.
“I’m particularly fond of the description ‘a debauched lecher who has mastered carousing.’ But between you and me”—he bent forward as if divulging a secret—“it may be gauche, but I’ve kept all the ones that featured me. I do enjoy reading about my escapades.”
“Like the time you were caught swimming in Lord Peters’s fountain with Lady Peters and Mrs. Hemsley completely naked?”
“Someone had to save them from drowning. As I recall, I was still wearing clothes,” he said. “I can’t vouch for the ladies’ attire.”
“Oh really?” She stared in disbelief. “What about you stealing a kiss from the Duchess of Southart in front of her duke?”
“There was mistletoe. Come now, my lady, you wouldn’t deny a man a simple holiday merriment?”
His expression reminded her of a guilty child feigning innocence.
“The article that said I was ‘sniffing’ after the Countess of Eanruig’s hand is incorrect.” He leaned back in his chair and grinned as if pleased with himself. “She was sniffing after me.”
Unbelievably, she found herself leaning forward to hear his words, hungry for his gossip. She exhaled silently. Best to get ahold of herself before she lost her nerve and her advantage.
“Sir, we don’t need your stench of scandal in Thistledown. You’re a wild rake.”
“As in untamed?” He arched one brow.
“Uncouth,” she proclaimed.
The most devilish half grin graced his lips.
“And wicked,” she huffed while looking down her nose, but really it was more looking up as he was so tall.
“Birds of a feather . . .” he murmured.
“Careful, Vicar. You’re showing how provincial you really are.”
“I consider it ‘pastoral.’” His deep voice softened as if charming the devil’s minions.
“You and your reputation are not welcome in our community.” There. She’d said it. The words to drive him away. She didn’t want to insult him, but sometimes it was best to go for the jugular as they say. He didn’t need to know that she was the only one in Thistledown who subscribed to The Midnight Cryer. Nor did he need to know that she watched for articles about him as fervently as he did.
“How ironic? You do realize that you’re welcoming me by gracing me with your presence. Speaking of reputations, what does that say about you?” He tapped the indentation in the middle of his perfect chin with one long, masculine finger. “I think it suggests you’re interested in me.” He had the audacity to laugh.
“I’m interested in getting you to leave.” The clipped words echoed around the room.
“You haven’t lost any of your rudimentary charm, Lady Warlock. You’ll just have to try harder.” He narrowed his eyes. “I’m staying. Now, when shall I meet the marquess?”Return to Wild, Wild Rake
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