Last week we announced that Jackie Barbosa’s Hot Under the Collar (Lords of Lancashire) is our Romance of the Week and the sponsor of thousands of great bargains in the Romance category: over 200 free titles, over 600 quality 99-centers, and thousands more that you can read for free through the Kindle Lending Library if you have Amazon Prime!
Now we’re back to offer our weekly free Romance excerpt, and if you aren’t among those who have downloaded Hot Under the Collar (Lords of Lancashire), you’re in for a treat!
by Jackie Barbosa
HOT UNDER THE COLLAR is a 37,500 word novella (approximately 110 printed pages). In addition, this ebook includes excerpts from THE LESSON PLAN, the first Lords of Lancashire novella, and INCARNATE, an Edwardian-set urban fantasy novel set for release in fall 2012.
Despite the old saw about third sons being destined for the church, no one ever expected the rakish, irresponsible Walter Langston to take up the collar, least of all himself. After an accident renders him unfit for military service, however, he has few other options. When he’s given the post of vicar at a parish church in a sleepy, coastal village, he’s convinced he’ll molder in obscurity. Instead, his arrival brings a sudden resurgence in church attendance…or at least, the attendance of female parishioners. As word of the eligible young vicar spreads, every well-heeled family for miles with a marriageable daughter fills his pews, aiming to catch his eye. Unfortunately for these hopeful members of his flock, Walter’s eye has already been caught—by the one woman who doesn’t come to church on Sundays.
Artemisia Finch left a lucrative career as a celebrated member of London’s demimondaine to care for her ailing father. Returning home hasn’t been easy, though, as her past isn’t even a well-kept secret in the village. When the new vicar arrives on her doorstep, Artemisia is determined to send him on his merry, pious way. But Walter Langston is nothing like any man of the cloth she’s ever known—he’s funny, irreverent, handsome, and tempting as sin. Falling in love with a vicar would be a very bad idea for a former courtesan. Why does this one have to be so hot under the collar?
And here, for your reading pleasure, is our free excerpt:
Cumbria, England—May, 1803
The good Lord had a devilish sense of humor. That was the only possible explanation for the series of events that had led, inexorably, toward Walter Langston’s current predicament.
To be fair, there was nothing amusing in the accident that had brought an abrupt end to his nascent—albeit not terribly promising—military career. If he had been shot in the arse or even the foot, the story would at least have made good fodder for post-prandial gatherings, but when the errant bullet struck one’s collarbone and left one with less than full use of the adjoining arm, there wasn’t a great deal to laugh about.
He could, of course, have continued in the army despite his disability, but the truth was, he hadn’t wanted to. Having been successfully shot at once by mistake, Walter had little inclination to put himself in a position where he was guaranteed to be shot at on purpose. A single encounter with a projectile was enough to last a lifetime. It had certainly come close enough to ending that lifetime.
Unfortunately, he had been equally disinclined upon his recovery to return to the life he’d led prior to purchasing his commission. It was one thing to live off the largesse of an older, titled sibling at twenty three or twenty four and quite another at nearly thirty. Walter had required a profession. The military option was now closed and murdering both his older brothers—not to mention two small nephews of whom he was rather fond—in order to come into the viscountcy was quite out of the question. That left only one remotely acceptable option. The one to which he, as the third son of an aristocrat, had purportedly been born, but which he had misspent the majority of his youth proving himself unfit for.
Walter Langston, who had never in his life been a model of either piety or propriety, was now a vicar.
He had, however, reconciled himself to this particular anomaly some time ago. His real problem stemmed not from his vocation—if it could even be called that—but from the fact that every week since his arrival, the size of his congregation had multiplied by leaps and bounds, until the pews of St. Mary’s were filled to bursting. This Sunday, his eleventh, he had gazed from the pulpit upon an audience that far exceeded the entire population of the tiny coastal village of Grange-Over-Sands.
This might be an enviable feat for many a clergyman, but Walter was well aware that the growth in church attendance had little to do with his powers of oratory or ministry and everything to do with his marital status.
An unmarried vicar, it seemed, must be in want of a wife.
And that was precisely his dilemma. Every Sunday after the service, he must run a growing gauntlet of dewy-eyed, dough-faced young ladies and their hopeful mamas and papas, who inevitably pressed him to come to their homes for tea; for dinner; for a lawn party; for no reason at all save the pleasure of his delightful company. By the time he reached the parish house, he was always horrified by the realization that once again, in an effort to appear polite and avoid offense, he had accepted every single invitation. This placed him in the unfortunate position of appearing to have a possible romantic interest in nearly every marriageable female in the surrounding countryside when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Not to mention that the whirlwind of social activity during the week inevitably left him no time to write his sermon, which in turn meant he stayed up well into the early hours of Sunday morning to finish it.
This Sunday, he had determined, would be different. He would not succumb to his naturally accommodating disposition, but would resolutely rebuff all overtures on the grounds that to do otherwise would be to neglect his duty to the church.
As he exited the double doors from the vestibule and into the throng that awaited him on the front steps, he reminded himself that just because he would prefer to have dinner anywhere but in the vicarage—Mrs. Graham, whose services had come with the post at St. Mary’s, was a more-than-competent housekeeper, but only barely tolerable as a cook—was no excuse to forego his course of action. Never mind that she would undoubtedly feed him something that would somehow achieve the feat of being simultaneously soggy and dry, and that she would press a second and third helping on him which he would be forced to choke down rather than hurt the poor woman’s feelings.
He made his way through the crowd, rejecting each proposed gathering with what he hoped was perceived as gracious regret, each time wincing internally as he recalled exactly how delicious the last meal he had consumed in that particular home had been. Resisting temptation was, however, good for the soul, not to mention excellent fodder for next Sunday’s sermon.
Walter had got to the bottom step and was conveying his apologies to the last disappointed family when he caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye.
She had been there every Sunday since he’d first arrived in Grange-Over-Sands, but she never entered the church…or even the church grounds. Instead, she parked the simple, one-horse cart she drove outside the gate and waited for Horace Finch, an elderly gentleman who attended each service alone, to make his slow, painstaking way across the churchyard. When he reached the cart, she got down from her seat, took his cane and helped him up, and then the two of them drove away.
From the first week, she had intrigued him. He told himself it wasn’t simply because she was beautiful. In all honesty, since he had never seen her at a distance of less than fifty feet, it would be difficult to say that she was beautiful. All he could say with certainty was that she was slim, tall for a woman, and blond, but she carried herself like a beautiful woman—erect, elegant, and at ease.
Who was she? And why didn’t she attend the service with the devout Mr. Finch? Walter had speculated at first that she might be an employee, perhaps a nurse or some other caregiver, but after watching the two of them interact for several weeks, he had concluded that was unlikely. There was a tenderness between them that belied a paid relationship, which left only a familial one. But that answer only deepened the mystery, because surely a daughter or granddaughter or niece would come to services.
And then there was that niggling sensation at the base of his skull. Familiarity. Even at fifty feet, he felt certain he recognized her. Though he could not fathom how that was possible.
“Wednesday, then?” Mrs. Thursby asked.
Walter blinked, jerking his attention back to the middle-aged woman who apparently thought his rejection of her initial invitation had been due to the proposed day of the week rather than, as he had clearly stated, a determination to attend to church business over social calls.
“I’ll have Mrs. Jenkins make her roast duck and french beans,” she added hopefully, casting a sidelong glance at Miss Thursby.
The saucer-eyed, dark-ringleted girl couldn’t be past seventeen and wouldn’t have appealed to Walter’s taste even when he’d been seventeen. Mrs. Jenkins’ roast duck and french beans, however, were entirely to his taste.
“Yes, Wednesday will do nicely,” Walter heard himself say.
Damn and blast, he’d done it again. But at least he’d only done it once. And it meant he would get at least one decent meal this week.
Mrs. Thursby smiled broadly, looking more like a giddy adolescent than her daughter. In fact, Miss Thursby appeared less enthusiastic about his acceptance than her mother. Perhaps, Walter thought, he was no more to her taste than she was to his. It seemed he had chosen, by happy accident, precisely the right invitation to accept.
He said his goodbyes and turned away in time to see the cart carrying Horace Finch and his female companion pull away. As if she felt his regard, the woman cast a glance over her shoulder and their eyes met across the churchyard. His breath snagged in his lungs. This time it was more than familiarity that caught him off-guard.
It was desire. Hot, thick, and heavy.
He wanted her, whoever she was. And by one means or another, he meant to have her. In the most unholy ways imaginable.
Mrs. Graham set Walter’s Sunday luncheon—a day-old meat pasty and a cup of coffee—on the table in front of him. “Can I get you anything else, vicar?”
Walter crushed the urge to turn around and look for the vicar in question. He knew, of course, that he was a vicar, but he still hadn’t quite accustomed himself to being addressed as one.
“No, Mrs. Graham, this will be more than sufficient,” he said. This was not an understatement. He would be lucky to choke down half of it before his appetite was thoroughly quashed.
“I’ll be off to see to the evening meal, then.”
Walter held up his hand. “Before you go, I have a question for you.”
“By all means, vicar.”
He wished she would stop addressing him that way. Especially since the purpose of his question was utterly unvicarly.
“Who is the woman who drives Mr. Finch home from church every Sunday? And why she does not attend the service herself?”
The housekeeper, whose complexion ran to the ruddy, blanched as pale as a turnip. “Oh, that’s a right sordid story, it is. I’m sure it’s not at all fit for the ears of a man of the cloth.”
Walter arched an eyebrow. “I was not a saint before becoming a member of the clergy, nor did I become one thereafter. I assure you my collar will remain firmly in place after the hearing of the tale, no matter how shocking the details.”
Mrs. Graham pursed her lips. “Very well, then. That would be Miss Artemisia Finch, Mr. Finch’s daughter, and she does not come to church because women of her ilk are not welcome among the respectable folk of this town, not even on a cool Sunday in hell.”
Ilk, eh? Walter got the broad outlines of the picture, even if he didn’t quite fathom the details. “I see. Might I ask how she came to be…well, of that ilk?”
Some of the starch seemed to go out of the housekeeper’s posture. “Do you mind if I sit?”
“No, not at all,” Walter assured her, pulling out the chair around the corner of the small table at which he took his meals. Everything in the vicarage was small compared to what he’d been accustomed to back at Barrowcreek Park.
The round-faced woman plopped into the chair and smoothed her apron as she spoke. “You must ken, the Finches have always been a very well-respected family in the Grange. So when Miss Finch came up in the family way when she was but fifteen, no one was more surprised than I. She’d always seemed a nice, well-behaved girl despite Mr. Finch having to raise her on his own after his wife died birthing their second child, a boy who sadly didn’t survive, either.”
Mrs. Graham had begun to warm to her story and now leaned forward conspiratorially. “Now I see that not having a mother led Miss Finch to run wild. It seems she’d been having…” Here, the woman coughed delicately, her cheeks reddening again, “…relations with a number of young men, including the Earl of Sandhurst’s son. She claimed he was the babe’s father, but of course, no one could believe it when so many came forward to claim knowledge of her. Naturally, everyone expected her to do the decent thing and leave town to give birth, but instead, she was brazen enough to stay. When the babe was reported stillborn, there were plenty of folk who thought she probably smothered it so she could go on with her whoring ways without being saddled with a child.”
Walter took a sip of his coffee to cover his rising indignation. He did find the story most sordid, but probably not in the way Mrs. Graham expected. Whatever one might infer about Miss Finch’s morals or lack of thereof, she’d hardly managed to conceive a child without assistance. He was quite certain that the Earl of Sandhurst’s son had not been expected to slink away in shame at the revelation that he might have impregnated a girl who was barely more than a child, while she was considered beyond the pale for refusing to leave her home.
The housekeeper carried on blithely with her tale. “About a year after the babe was born, she finally had the sense to leave. We heard tell she went to London and became…well, not a woman of unblemished character. About two years past, after Mr. Finch had his first apoplexy, she come back home, but at least she doesn’t try to mingle with the respectable folk anymore.”
Walter set his cup back on the table as the pieces of the puzzle he’d been trying to solve since that first Sunday he’d seen Artemisia Finch clicked into place.
London, five years ago. If there had been a “Diamond of Season” designation for the demimondaine, it would have fallen to her that year. Tall, blonde and elegant, she exuded a cool reserve that was a thousand times more alluring than the more transparent tactics employed by her counterparts. She had recently parted company with the newly wed Duke of Stratton—her first and, as far as anyone knew, only lover—and every male in Town with a full purse and an empty bed hoped to be her next protector.
Walter had attended a few events at which she had been present and admired her from afar. Pursuing her for himself had not been an option. As the third son of a viscount who had just spent the vast majority of his income on the purchase of his ill-fated commission, he had nothing to offer her. He was a crow to her swan. A mortal to her goddess.
A goddess who had gone by a single name. Artemisia.
“The post, Miss Finch.”
Artemisia set her stitchery on the side table and took the envelopes from the footman’s outstretched hand. “Thank you, Hodgson,” she said, smiling inwardly at the young man’s pinkening complexion.
He had been employed in the Finch household less than a month and had apparently developed a something of a tendre for her in the ensuing weeks. Although she hated to admit it, she was flattered and even a little touched by his open—and to all appearances innocent—adoration. It had been a very long time since anyone other than her father and the servants who’d known her since childhood had gazed at her with anything but scorn and condemnation. She wondered how much longer Hodgson would cling to his infatuation before someone told him who and what she really was.
After giving the boy a nod to dismiss him, she sorted through the letters, setting aside one from her banker in London to read later and two for her father before lighting on one addressed in a familiar, flowery script and scented with a similarly florid perfume.
In the two years since Artemisia had returned to Grange-Over-Sands, she had received exactly three letters from Georgiana Sares, her best friend from her days in the demimondaine. Georgie was, by her own admission, an indifferent letter-writer, and the few missives she managed to pen were invariably brief and consisted primarily of the latest London gossip. Like Georgie herself, however, the letters were inevitably lively and engaging, and Artemisia delighted in catching up on the on dit about her former friends and rivals.
Breaking the seal on the letter, she opened it and began to read.
My dearest Artie,
You will never believe it. I know you are thinking that I exaggerate, like I always do, but this time, I know I am right. This is the most shocking news yet, and I cannot help but want to delay the revelation simply because I want to imagine for just a bit longer the look on your face when you finally read it. So, here it is…
I am to be married.
You see? I am right, am I not? You are shaking your head and clucking your tongue and thinking dear old Georgie has gone right round the bend. But I assure you, I have not. By the time you receive this letter, I shall likely be happily married and on my way to Italy with my lovely, beloved conte.
Yes, conte. Which means I am a contessa. The Contessa de Benino, in fact.
There was more, but Artemisia set the letter down in her lap, unable to read more until she collected her emotions.
Georgie married? To an Italian count? It was—or should have been—unbelievable. After all, gentlemen married respectable young ladies of unquestionable virtue, not the disreputable women of low morals who permitted themselves to be bedded without first being wedded.
And yet, if there was any courtesan in the world who could convince a nobleman to toss respectability to the wind, it would be Georgie. Georgie, who was full of life and fun, who laughed easily and never had an unkind word to say of anyone, even when she probably should have. Georgie, who gave her heart to every lover she took as completely and unselfishly as she gave her body. It was only right and fair that one of those lovers had at last seen fit to return the favor.
Artemisia blinked back the prickle of tears. If she were as unselfish as her friend, those tears would be motivated purely by joy. But she knew better. Because as delighted as she was for Georgie, Artemisia could not deny the raw envy that burned her throat or the ache of loneliness that hollowed her chest.
When she’d come home on the news of her father’s illness, she hadn’t expected to stay. The truth was, she hadn’t expected him to survive, especially during those first few days when he hadn’t even been able to swallow properly. His physician had given him a few days, perhaps a week. Horace Finch was nothing if not tenacious, however, and he’d clawed his way back from death’s doors. If it weren’t for his shuffling gait and limp right arm, one would almost never know he’d had an apoplexy at all, let alone that it had nearly killed him.
But Artemisia knew. She couldn’t go through it again. She couldn’t bear the thought of rushing home again, filled with the fear that she wouldn’t make it to his side in time. She couldn’t take that risk again. And since her father would never leave his beloved Finch House, she would remain here with him until the end, no matter how difficult or lonely her life became. It was the least she could do.
Even if it meant she would never have friends. Even if it meant she would never experience the comfort of a lover’s embrace or the passion of his kiss. Lord, how she missed the hair-coarsened feel of a man’s skin beneath her palm, the heated glide of his body over and inside of hers, and the powerful thud of his heartbeat where she rested her head upon his chest.
Blast it, what sort of friend wallowed in self-pity when she should be taking pleasure in her dearest friend’s good fortune? With a grimace of disgust, Artemisia forced herself to pick up the letter and continue reading.
It seemed Georgie’s new husband was named Pietro, and they had been introduced shortly after she had parted ways with her last protector, the Earl of Montrose, several months past. Instead of rushing her into an arrangement, as most gentlemen did, Pietro had taken the time to court her as though she were a lady and then, to her utter amazement, had proposed not to make her his mistress, but to take her as his wife.
I protested, of course, that I was no fit wife for a gentleman of his position, but Pietro wouldn’t hear of it. He said he would make an honest woman of me or return to Italy with a broken heart.
Well, what could I do after that? I had to accept, didn’t I? And anyway, I was by then every bit as devoted to him as he to me.
Despite her foul mood, a smile tugged at Artemisia’s lips. Georgie’s breathless optimism and boundless enthusiasm positively radiated from the page. With a little imagination, Artemisia could hear her friend’s bubbly voice…as well as her own voice urging caution. Perhaps it was for the best that she hadn’t been in London to warn that a gentleman who claimed to be an Italian count might be anything but.
Ah, she was doing it again. When had she become such a stick in the mud?
She was about to read more of the letter—and there seemed to be quite a bit more—when she heard an unfamiliar knocking sound coming from the general direction of the front door. With a frown of irritation, she set the pages on the table beside her needlework and got up from her chair. No one ever made social calls on the Finches, not anymore, anyway.
Someone must be having a hard time finding the delivery door round back, although how that was possible when everyone who ever brought supplies to Finch House had been to its kitchen at least a hundred times was beyond her. Perhaps Mr. Farley, the fishmonger, had finally got round to delegating the task of deliveries to his son. The boy was just thirteen or fourteen and, having grown up in a small cottage in the village, he mightn’t realize that large houses like theirs even had kitchen doors. He would undoubtedly be horrified when he learned of his mistake. Not to mention scandalized at having been forced to exchange words with Grange-Over-Sands very own Jezebel, Miss Artemisia Finch.
By the time she reached the entry hall, she was more amused by the prospect of shocking her young visitor than annoyed by the interruption. Smiling, she pulled open the front door, prepared to find a scrawny, spotty-faced adolescent on the other side.
Her smile collapsed. Her amusement shriveled. Her skin tingled with heated, feminine awareness.
The man who stood on the doorstep was anything but scrawny or spotty faced. He was, in fact, as fine a specimen of manhood as Artemisia had ever encountered…and she had certainly encountered her fair share. Including this one, although in the past, fifty or more feet of a churchyard in which she could never again set foot had separated them, insulating her from her own unattainable desires.
For there had never been a man more unattainable than Mr. Walter Langston, Grange-Over-Sands new vicar.
“Good afternoon, Miss Finch,” he said, making an amiable half-bow as he spoke. His shoulders were quite broad, and his black coat pulled just enough over his back for her to imagine the lean, corded musculature that must lie beneath. He wore his hair longer than was currently fashionable, past his shoulders and pulled back into a queue with a black ribbon. When he straightened again, she could not prevent herself from thinking that he had the least vicarly face she had ever seen, possessed of neither a weak chin nor bushy eyebrows nor sunken cheeks and eyes. In fact, were it not for his black coat and white necktie, she would not for a moment have believed he was a man of the cloth.
He most certainly should not be a man in clothes.
With that utterly inappropriate thought, she realized to her humiliation that she was gawping like a virgin on her wedding night.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Langston,” she returned, though she decided to pass on dipping an answering curtsey. That was far too proper and demure a gesture for Grange-Over-Sands’ reigning trollop. “You must be here to see my father. I’ll just go and fetch him.”
Horace Finch spoke highly of the new vicar, describing him as intelligent, friendly, and an excellent orator. Her father attributed the recent surge in church attendance to these qualities, though Artemisia suspected that phenomenon owed more to Mr. Langston’s youth and marital status than to his ministerial qualifications. Notwithstanding, it was kind—and perhaps a little foolhardy—of him to call on her father, whose few remaining friends had stopped coming to see him as soon as it became apparent that Artemisia had no intention of leaving.
“Ah, but you’re mistaken, Miss Finch. I came to see you.”
Although she could detect not the remotest trace of censure in his tone, the knot pulling tight in the pit of her belly knew it was coming. The new vicar, having been informed of the unrepentant harlot sullying his virtuous little parish, was undoubtedly here to instill her with a proper sense of shame for her transgressions. Of course, he would couch his moral vitriol in feigned concern for the state of her immortal soul, assuring her that Christ would forgive her if only she would admit to the error of her ways.
But if she was going to be forced to admit to the error of her ways, then as a matter of fairness, Robert Beaumont and his cronies should be made to do the same. Unfortunately, there was no vicar on earth—not even one as heavenly to behold as this one—nor anyone else who would be foolhardy enough to risk the wrath of the Earl of Sandhurst.
“Then I’m afraid I must disappoint you, Mr. Langston, for I’m not taking callers this afternoon.”
She started to swing the door closed, quite rudely, in his face. She was unprepared for him to—equally rudely—flatten his palm against the beveled oak panel and press back to prevent her from achieving her goal.
“If you are not taking callers, you ought not to answer the door,” he observed.
“I thought you were someone else.”
“Then you are taking callers.” As if he had proved his point, he proceeded to put one foot across the threshold despite the fact that the door was only half open.
“I didn’t think you were a caller,” she snapped. “I am sure you are well aware that we do not have callers at Finch House.”
“You have one now,” he said.
And then he smiled.
Oh, mercy. No man should be permitted to have a smile like that. A smile that said they were co-conspirators who shared some delicious secret to be protected from the world. Against a smile like that, no woman had a fighting chance. Least of all her.
She pulled the door open again. “Please, Mr. Langston, do come in.”
Walter followed Artemisia Finch into the parlor, a bit uncertain as to how to proceed with her. When he had decided to call on her this afternoon, he had given little thought to his strategy once he got past her initial defenses. He had, in fact, been expecting a siege of Trojan proportions, and as he was fresh out of horses, the notion of getting through the gates on his first attempt hadn’t crossed his mind. She had ample cause, after all, to be prickly and unwelcoming, and none whatsoever to believe his intentions were honorable. Especially when, viewed objectively, they were not.
Certainly, there was nothing honorable about the way his eyes were drawn to the sway of her hips as she preceded him into the small, sunny sitting room. Well, small by the standards of Barrowcreek Park, he amended mentally. In comparison to the front parlor of the vicarage, the dimensions of this room were nearly palatial.
Artemisia—Miss Finch, he corrected—gestured toward a somewhat threadbare but serviceable-looking settee facing the large bay window that provided most of the room’s lighting. “Please, have a seat, Mr. Langston.”
As he settled himself, she took up a chair nearer the fireplace and retrieved a piece of stitchery from the table beside it. When she turned it over in her hands, Walter could see that her needlework was exceptionally fine, certainly a cut well above his sister’s—which was hardly saying much, since to his knowledge, Freddie couldn’t sew a stitch—or even his sister-in-law’s. That Artemisia Finch should have such a clever way with a needle confounded him. It was so…domestic.
But then, everything about her was unaccountably, unsettlingly domestic. Oh, she was every bit as lovely as he recalled—all smooth ivory-tinted skin and shimmering blond hair and plush pink lips set in a face that might have been sculpted by a Greek master attempting to render the perfection of a goddess. Beyond that, however, there was little about either her appearance or her manner that put him in mind of the sensual, sophisticated courtesan he’d admired from afar in London.
While that Artemisia Finch had worn her hair in cunningly arranged Grecian ringlets, this one’s hung in an artless tumble around her face and shoulders. Although neither woman required cosmetics to camouflage her flaws—Walter could find none—the London version had been painstakingly painted and rouged to accentuate her best features. And where that woman had been swathed in a form-fitting, nearly transparent gown made of gold-shot silk, this one was garbed in a modest, unremarkable peach-tinged muslin day dress that would not have been in the least out of place on a vicar’s wife.
A vicar’s wife? What on earth had prompted that unholy thought? Marriage was the furthest thing from his mind. Wasn’t it?
“So, tell me, vicar,” she said conversationally, though she stabbed her needle rather viciously into the fabric as she spoke, “which sermon did you plan on delivering this afternoon? Will it be the one in which you warn me of the hellfire and damnation that awaits fallen women such as myself, or the one in which you assure me that the Lord will forgive me and take me into heaven if only I repent my sins?”
Walter raised his eyebrows. “If you are hoping for a sermon, Miss Finch, I’m afraid I shall have to disappoint you. I am, after all, only paid to sermonize on Sundays, and I hold rather strictly to the notion that a chap oughtn’t give away the milk when he can sell the cow.”
Her eyes—a shade of blue so dark, he’d imagined from a distance they must be brown—flicked from her needlework to his face then back again. “I am reasonably certain that the milk and cow analogy does not apply to sermons and vicars.”
“No?” he asked, feigning shock at the notion.
She shook her head, her lips pressed together in a thin line that suggested she was suppressing either a frown or a smile.
“Ah, perhaps it is eggs and hens, then. Or no, I imagine it must be wool and sheep. What with all the flock references, you know.”
Now she was smiling, although she was also doing her best to hide it by continuing to ply her needle in swift, even stitches through the fabric on her hoop.
“In any event,” he went on, “even if I were inclined to deliver a sermon on my day off, it would not likely be on the subjects of damnation or repentance. I have, you see, a rather uncertain relationship with those concepts myself, having failed to repent of any number of sins I have committed in the past and, frankly, am likely to commit again in the future. It is difficult, after all, to repent what one does not regret, and I fear the vast majority of my transgressions evoke no regret in me whatsoever.”
Miss Finch’s needle came to a halt, and she gave him an assessing look. “That is a most peculiar thing for a vicar to say, Mr. Langston. Is it not your responsibility to ensure that your flock does not stray from the path of righteousness?”
“The flock always strays, Miss Finch. It is the nature of sheep—and people—to wander. It is the job of the shepherd—or the vicar—to see that they are welcomed back when they do, not to prevent them from doing so.”
“But is that not the purpose of repentance? To ensure the sinner sees the error of his ways and does not repeat the offense?”
“Those who wander are not necessarily lost. And those who are lost often do not realize they have strayed. Often, the greatest sins are committed by those who believe they are the most righteous.” Like the people of this village who had a decade ago condemned a young girl without so much as a second thought.
“You speak in riddles, Mr. Langston.”
Walter grinned. “I’ve heard tell that clergy often do. Although in the scheme of things, I believe allegories are preferred.”
She tilted her head and studied him again with those marvelous, indigo eyes. “Well, if you have not come to lecture me on the error of my ways, then why did you come to see me?”
“Because, Miss Finch, I wanted to. Because I wanted you.”
She must have misheard him. Or mistaken his meaning.
Artemisia stared at the dreadfully handsome, frightfully alluring vicar for several seconds, waiting for him to add something to his statement that would change its meaning. But he did not. Instead, he regarded her with a charged intensity that put paid to any notion she might have misunderstood him.
She ought to be insulted by his presumption. Just because she had once been a courtesan did not mean she would fall into bed with any man who asked. Back then, in fact, she’d been quite particular about exactly which men she fell into bed with. She had taken just two lovers in seven years—and when the first had broken one of her cardinal rules and got married, she had broken off with him straightaway despite the fact that he was a duke and had offered to double her allowance. There were some sins she just wouldn’t commit, however, and enabling a man to commit marital infidelity was one of them. She was a fornicator, after all, not an adulteress.
Of course, there would be no adultery if she took Walter Langston to her bed. She knew of a certainty he was not married. He was also more than passably attractive and obviously of better-than-average intelligence. If this were London and he were a wealthy gentleman, she would undoubtedly take him under consideration as a potential protector.
But this was not London, and he was not a wealthy gentleman. This was Grange-Over-Sands—so far from London it might as well be on the moon—and though he was clearly a gentleman, by both birth and upbringing, he was also clearly not a wealthy one. If he were, he would not be a vicar.
So why, instead of being offended, was she flattered and worse, tempted? Why did she find her gaze lingering on his full, sensual lips and those large, capable hands with their long, graceful fingers? Why did the full weight of her isolation have to fall upon her now, making her uncomfortably aware of how long it had been since she had felt the full weight of a man’s body covering hers, filling hers?
She set her needlework carefully in her lap, her hands trembling. “I beg your pardon, vicar, but are you—” She hesitated, for suddenly, she felt rather foolish for even considering the possibility that a clergyman might make such an advance. “Are you asking me to be your mistress?”
His eyes widened, and he blinked several times as though taken aback. “My dear Miss Finch, you wound me. I wouldn’t dream of proposing such a thing.” He paused and shook his head, and then the smile that had melted her resolve to keep him on her doorstep reappeared. “Well, to be fair, perhaps I might dream of it. Did dream of it, in fact, five years ago.”
Artemisia took a sharp breath. “You knew me in London?”
“Knew of you would be more accurate. We were never introduced, but we were at several social events at the same time just after you broke off with Stratton. I found you…entrancing.”
“But you never pursued me.”
His smile turned self-deprecating. “As you might have guessed from my current circumstances, I was hardly in a financial position to do so. Not only that, but I wasn’t expecting to be in London long. I’d just purchased my commission.”
“You were in the army?” Mr. Langston was, without a doubt, the most curious vicar she had ever encountered. When he nodded, she asked, “Why did you leave it?”
“Took a stray bullet in the right shoulder during training exercises. The resulting fever nearly killed me. I decided after that I wasn’t particularly keen on being shot again, so I sold out and joined the church. Thought it would be safer.” With a shake of his head, he chuckled. “I didn’t take into account the military precision of the parents of marriageable daughters. God help us, but I believe the mothers, in particular, may be more ruthless than Frenchmen.” He punctuated this last observation with an exaggerated shudder.
“Well,” Artemisia observed drily, “you must admit you are an excellent catch.”
“I admit no such thing. I assure you that once upon a time, I was the last man to have his name etched on any respectable young lady’s dance card. And in any event, I have no interest in being caught on anyone’s hook just yet.”
“In my experience, men never want to be caught, but they do tend to be attracted to bright, shiny objects, which often leads to that result.” She tilted to her head to one side, recalling the original question that had led them down the path of this conversation. And that it had not been answered. “Is that why you’re here, Mr. Langston? Because I’m a bright, shiny object that doesn’t have a hook hiding underneath?”
He placed his palms flat on his legs, just above the knees, and leaned forward, his expression earnest. “To be quite honest, Miss Finch, I’m not entirely sure why I am here except that I felt compelled to meet you. And to offer you my friendship, for what it might be worth. I can’t imagine it’s easy for you, living here, given everything that’s happened.”
Artemisia stood abruptly, sending her needlework to the floor with a clatter. She met his gaze to find his rich, brown eyes filled with sympathy and kindness, and wanted to slap him. “I don’t need your pity, vicar, any more than I needed a sermon on repentance.” Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to see to my father’s afternoon tea and biscuits.”
Her skirts swirled about her feet as she turned to leave. It was rude in the extreme, but she meant it to be. She didn’t regret her choices, and she didn’t want anyone else regretting them on her behalf. The bed she’d made was perfectly comfortable—if a bit empty—and she was more than willing to lie in it.
She had taken precisely two steps when strong, capable fingers wrapped around her upper arm and whirled her back to face him. His eyes were no longer soft with sympathy, but hard as the famous rocky cliffs of Dover.
“Let me make myself perfectly clear, Miss Finch. I do not pity you.” He yanked her against his chest, which she tried not to notice was broad and warm and solid and very, very male. “Does this feel like pity?”
It didn’t, but she couldn’t say so, because he was kissing her, and under no circumstances did she want him to stop.
Click here to download the entire book: Jackie Barbosa’s Hot Under the Collar (Lords of Lancashire) >>>