A gift of daisies
The two young men walking along Bond Street were quite unremarkable, mingling as they were with the usual morning crowd of elegant shoppers and strollers. One was fashionably attired, from the tip of his beaver hat to the toes of his shiny black Hessian, boots. The other was plainly but neatly dressed. His height and splendid physique gave him an air of fashion, but a second glance would have revealed to an observer that both his coat and his boots had seen better days.
The latter young man was smiling at the other as they dodged a fashionable couple on the pavement. "Yes, Algie," he said, "I must confess that you are now the perfect gentleman down to the last little detail. Only one thing puzzles me. Why does high fashion require one to drag around all sorts of useless paraphernalia?"
Lord Rivers looked down at his newly purchased gold-topped walking cane. "It is rather splendid, is it not?" he said, thoroughly pleased with himself. "Do you think it will elevate me to the ranks of the Corinthians, David m'boy?"
"I doubt it," his cousin, David Gower, said with a laugh. "I think there are other qualifications of more importance."
"A damned shame, I would say," Lord Rivers commented without rancor. "But the cane does add years of consequence to a man, you must admit, David. A pity you would not let me buy you that turquoise-studded snuffbox. I can't stand the stuff myself, but it would give you a definite air."
"I don't think it would have quite fit my image," David said with a grin. "And you must learn, Algie, that I do not need you to be spending money on me. I have quite enough for my purposes. It is sufficient that you have invited me to stay here in London for a number of weeks before I remove to the country to rusticate forever after."
"Well, you can't blame a man for trying," Lord Rivers said with a sigh. "But you haven't become a killjoy, have you, David? You used not to be. You were up to all sorts of mischief as a lad. The despair of my aunt, I seem to remember."
"Poor Mama!" his companion agreed. "But no, Algie, I don't think you will find me turned into an old sobersides. You must remember, though, that it is four years since we last met. Very eventful years. I have changed."
"You must have," his cousin agreed fervently. "You actually studied at unversity, David? Amazing! I never heard of such a strange thing. And then refused Rufus' offer to send you on the Grand Tour. Now, that needs explanation."
"My brother has his family to think of-he doesn't need to worry about me," David said. "Papa did not leave the estate in a very prosperous way, you know, Algie. Rufus has the Cardwell title and little more. No, it was always understood that I must seek employment. I have done so. There is no point now in playing the grand gentleman and gallivanting off to the Continent. Besides, I would not have found the experience very pleasurable. A waste of time, rather."
"You have changed!" Lord Rivers said bluntly. "Only four years ago, David, when you were here with me, you were fretting at the cruel fate that had made you a younger son."
"And now I have learned to bless that same fate," his cousin said with a shrug. "People change, Algie. It is the difference between one-and-twenty years and five-and-twenty. Now I am not only contented but actively glad that I am the younger son of a not overly wealthy father and thus forced to seek my own way in life. And I am equally glad that Madeline has done her duty so promptly and presented Rufus with two sons so that I am far removed from all hopes of the title."
"If I didn't know you better, David, m'boy," Lord Rivers said, eyeing the other around sharply starched shirt points, "I would suspect sour grapes. But you always spoke what was on your mind… Ah, well met!"
David followed his cousin's gaze to the doorway of a ladies' modiste, from which two young ladies were just emerging. One was extremely pretty, the other rather plain, his mind registered somewhat absently.
The pretty girl smiled brightly in their direction and raised a perfectly frivolous green parasol over her head. "Algie," she called, "how glad I am to see you. I was just saying to Celia how dreadfully lowering it was not to have a gentleman's escort along Bond Street to the milliner's. Do say you are not in a hurry. You are such an imposing figure that I am bound to be noticed if I am on your arm." She laughed gaily to dispel any impression of conceit that her words might have aroused.
"As if you needed my presence or any other man's in order to be noticed, Rache," Lord Rivers said, closing the gap that remained between the two small groups.
David Gower's attention was caught, and he looked with some curiosity at the pretty girl in green. This was the neighbor Algie had spoken of the day before. The Earl of Edgeley's daughter, up from the country for her come-out. He had spoken so warmly, in fact, about her beauty and her success with the ton that David had wondered if there were any more to their relationship.
"How d'ye do, Miss Barnes?" Lord Rivers was saying, lifting his hat to the plainer girl and bowing his head. "May I present my cousin, David Gower? Lady Rachel Palmer, David, and her friend Miss Celia Barnes."
Curtsies and bows occupied the next several moments. Lady Rachel was indeed a beauty, David noticed. Her cheeks were flushed becomingly and her dark eyes sparkled as she looked up at him. Her hair, in soft curls beneath an absurdly ornate little bonnet, was as rich a brown as her eyes. She had a light, trim little figure. She would have attracted him a few years before. He could well imagine that Algie might be nursing a tendre for her. He turned and smiled at Miss Barnes and made some commonplace remark as he bowed to her.
"Lord Cardwell’s brother?" Lady Rachel was asking. "Is Gower House open, sir? I did not know the family was in town."
David smiled. "I am Algie's guest for a few weeks," he said, "before we go into the country together."
The color in her cheeks deepened. "You are to go to Singleton Hall?" she asked. "We are returning home at the same time, you know. Are you to stay there long?"
"I did not make the introduction very clear, Rache," Algernon said apologetically. "I should have presented David as the Reverend David Gower. He is taking over the vacancy in the village church when Vicar Ferney retires at the end of next month. It is my living, y'know."
Lady Rachel was looking wide-eyed into David's face. "Oh," she said, and giggled. "I did not realize. I am so sorry. You do not look like a clergyman, you see."
David's eyes were twinkling. "Clergymen are not born sixty years old, stooped, gray-haired, and nearsighted, you know," he said. "I will have to earn those honors."
"Oh," she said, sounding somewhat disconcerted. She turned to Algernon. "Algie, you will be at the Simpson ball tonight? You really must. I have a new ball gown that is absolutely weighted down with the most exquisite Brussels lace. Is it not, Celia? I simply must be certain that everyone sees it and me. And no one waltzes as well as you. I shall sign your name next to the first waltz on my card to make sure that no one of inferior talents steals it. Shall I? And Celia has a divine blue silk that is like to blind all beholders when it catches the candlelight. I shall sign your name on her card for the second waltz. You will be there?"
"Rachel!" Celia admonished her in an undertone and an agony of embarrassment, looking anywhere but at either of the two young gentlemen.
"Perhaps I may have the first?" David said in an attempt to lessen the girl's mortification.
"Oh, and the second with me?" Lady Rachel asked. "Can you waltz, Mr. Gower?"
"Yes, actually," he assured her, "though nowhere is it taught as a requisite for holy orders, ma'am."
She giggled and twirled her parasol. "How I am looking forward to this evening," she said, her eyes sparkling again. "It is an age since the last ball. A week ago yesterday. Though there was dancing in the Whites' drawing room three evenings ago. There were no more than fifteen couples, however. I am beginning to find the Season tedious, Algie."
"I fear we are blocking the pavement, Rache," Algernon said, offering her his arm. "Which milliner did you wish to visit? And how could you possibly need more bonnets? I have not seen you in the same one twice all spring. That particular one is very fetching, by the way."
"Thank you," she said. "Imagine how lowering it would be, Algie, to go through a whole Season with the same bonnets as one started with. That is a splendid cane. Is it new?"
David smiled warmly at Miss Barnes and took her arm within his.
Lady Rachel Palmer had been enjoying her first Season. She was nineteen years old, quite horrifyingly old to be making her come-out, in her opinion. However, she was glad enough to be in London even at that late date, considering the contempt in which her father held all that pertained to city life. Her mama had finally persuaded him that he must sacrifice his personal interests for the sake of his daughter.
"How is Rachel to have any choice of husband, Edgeley," she had said before winter even set in, "if she is never to meet anyone but Algernon? I will be perfectly delighted if she does marry him eventually, you know. But I would hate to see her do so just because she has never been presented with any alternative."
The Earl of Edgeley had grumbled and sulked all through the winter and had kept his women feeling almost as if they lived on tiptoe and with bated breath. But finally in February he had announced that he had rented a grand house in Grosvenor Square and that they might as well use it for a few months as leave it stand empty.
Her papa had grumbled every day since their arrival about the noises, the smells, the absence of open spaces where one might breathe comfortably, and a hundred and one other grievances. But Rachel did not care. She had taken with the ton immediately,, had been granted vouchers for Almack's within two weeks of their arrival, had at least four invitations among which to choose for each evening's entertainment, and had been granted permission to waltz three weeks and two days after they set foot in London. -
She had become the rage. No one had ever spoken this aloud in her hearing, and she had certainly never said it. She always felt a little guilty even thinking it, since the thought suggested some conceit. But she did think it nonetheless, and with great satisfaction when she was not feeling guilty. She had never once had to face the embarrassment of an empty space on her dance card, or a supper waiting and no escort to take her in, or a bright afternoon and no one to drive her to the park. Quite the contrary, in fact. She frequently had to disappoint those gentlemen who were in the habit of arriving fashionably late at an entertainment.
She had even had two marriage proposals, both from young men who had very improperly pressed their suit on her without first consulting her papa. Had they done the proper thing, of course, they would not have spoken to her at all, because Papa would have asked her, and she would have told him that one of the young men was a fortune hunter and the other a bore.
Rachel had come to London intent on marrying Algie one day. She loved Algie-she always had. She had even hero-worshiped him for a number of years when his ten-year seniority over her had made him appear gloriously adult and male. She still did think him rather glorious, in fact. He was not handsome, actually. His very prominent nose and light brown curls, which never looked quite fashionable even when combed to look intentionally disheveled, had destroyed that possibility. But he was a striking and a good-looking man, nevertheless. He had always had an almost exaggeratedly upright bearing that appeared to give his chest extra breadth and to add to his height, which in reality was scarcely above the average.
There was an air about Algie. People who did not know him well thought him pompous. They also tended to stand in awe of him. In town, Algie took great delight in being quite up to the minute in fashion. The height of his shirt points and the intricacy of his neckcloths during this particular spring were truly awesome. Rachel had not seen him during any other spring, of course, but she had heard that he always liked to follow the newest trends.
She had felt quite contented at the thought of being his wife someday. Sometime in the future. There was no hurry. Indeed, there was no formal understanding between them, though it was generally assumed in their neighborhood that they would eventually marry. But she had also come to London with an open mind. A girl was young only once. She had no burning desire to become betrothed before she had had a chance to sample some of the joys of life as a carefree young lady. And certainly no desire to be married just yet. She was quite ready to look around her at all the handsome and dashing young sprigs who abounded during the Season as much as did sprightly, fashionable young ladies like herself.
The Season had presented a dizzying number of activities. Rachel could not remember when she had last had an hour in which to do nothing but relax. She could also not remember an evening in which she had been in bed before midnight, except for Sundays, of course, when Papa would allow nothing more than church-going, quiet family walks or drives, and evenings devoted to reading aloud to one another from some edifying book, usually the Bible. Even in London that pattern was not to change, as Rachel had learned with a sigh of resignation within one week of their arrival in town.
Mornings, of course, could be a time of relaxation. Almost all her friends did not even rise until noon each day and were horrified to learn that Rachel was invariably up for breakfast and some vigorous morning exercise. But it was not in Rachel's nature to be idle. Sometimes she felt almost as if some demon drove her, though whether it drove her toward some goal or away from a contemplation of her own thoughts, she was not at all sure. She only knew that the pleasures of town, which had so delighted her for weeks, threatened to be not enough to distract her very restless mind.
She was very thankful for the presence of Celia, a dear friend from school days whom Papa had permitted her to invite to stay with them during the Season and even to return with them to the country afterward. Celia was a quiet and placid young lady. It had always been a matter of puzzlement to their school friends, and indeed to the girls themselves, just why they loved each other so dearly. It must simply be a classic case of the attraction of opposites, they concluded.
Celia had a calming influence on Rachel. She perhaps prevented her friend's activities during the Season from becoming too frenzied. For her part, Rachel tried to draw Celia out of a shell of quiet, always decorous behavior. Celia had been brought up in a strict household, where money was scarce and careful management a prime virtue. She found it hard to relax and enjoy herself. Rachel had set herself to seeing that her friend dressed becomingly and met eligible gentlemen. Left to herself, Celia did not have good taste in clothes, favoring safe pastel shades that did nothing for her rather pale hair and complexion.
Celia did sometimes find it difficult to keep up with the energy of her friend. On rare occasions she had refused outright to join an outing. But usually she would exert herself to follow wherever Rachel wished to lead, knowing that in the mornings at least her friend had little choice of companion. Lady Edgeley did not indulge in morning outings.
On this particular morning Celia had protested that there was absolutely nothing she needed to purchase, and even Rachel had admitted that she could do little more than look, since she had already overspent her allowance once and Papa would be in a rage if she asked him for a second advance on her next month's pin money. But go to Bond Street they must. No one interesting ever went to the park in the morning, and if they stayed at home, what would they do to fill in the empty hours until luncheon time? Celia had protested no further, but had gone in search of their pelisses while Rachel ordered the carriage to be sent around.
And so they had met Algie, as Rachel had been secretly hoping they would. She simply had to make certain that he would be at the Simpson ball that night, since he was the only gentleman of her acquaintance who really knew how to waltz. Algie twirled her and twirled her until she was dizzy. She always loved the sensation of being utterly dependent for support on the shoulder beneath one hand and the large masculine hand that clasped her other. She had forgotten to ask him two evenings before at the Ripleys' soiree if he were to attend the ball.
But Algie had not been alone. Rachel had hardly noticed his companion at first, so delighted was she to see the familiar, imposing figure of her neighbor and friend. But then she did look at the other man, and a strange thing happened. Nothing like it had ever happened to Rachel before. She had never expected or looked for such a thing. She was a very sensible young lady who enjoyed the adoration of men and who was contemplating marriage at some future date with someone of suitable rank and fortune.
She fell in love with Algie's companion.
That was an absurd way to describe her reactions, of course, she told herself later in the carriage. She did not believe in falling in love. That was for those giddy girls who always stood in groups in the ballroom, giggling behind their fans and ogling the more handsome men, who almost invariably paid them the compliment of ignoring them. And to speak of falling in love with a man whom one had just that moment set one's eyes upon for the first time was too preposterous even to be absurd.
What exactly had happened, then? She had moved her eyes to look at the man with Algie, only to find that he was studying her. There was nothing unusual about that. Rachel was quite accustomed to drawing the glances of young men-and some not so young too. In that first glance, she did not notice his tall, athletic body. She could not swear that she had even seen his thick, dark hair at first. She could not have seen it in all its shining glory, anyway, until he removed his hat when Algie introduced him. What had caused that feeling, then, of a merciless fist punching the air out of her stomach?
His mouth. Had she noticed his mouth in that first glance? Yes, she rather thought she had. A wide, good-humored mouth, which looked as if it were in the habit of smiling. A mouth that looked as if it would be interesting to kiss. And that was a shocking thought. Rachel had kissed a man only once in her life and that had been Algie in broad daylight in the middle of a field of sheep and sheep droppings when she had asked him to kiss her. She had found it somewhat disappointing, not with a stirring of a sinful feeling to make it exciting. She had very sensibly given up kissing as a desirable pastime from that moment on.
And his eyes. Oh, yes, his eyes! Definitely. Yes, they were what she had seen first. It was his eyes with which she had fallen in love. Blue eyes. Many men had blue eyes. She could recall three from among her regular followers without any effort of thought. But eyes that looked at one very directly as if they had nothing whatever to hide? Eyes that held no anxiety, no uncertainty? Eyes that somehow smiled at one even when his face was grave? No, she did not know anyone else with eyes like his.
Yes, it was when she had looked into his eyes that she had fallen in love with David Gower. The Reverend David Gower. Algie might have knocked her flat with a feather when he had said that, with some emphasis on the Reverend. Goodness, this was the man who was to take old Vicar Ferney's place? His was the face she would gaze at each Sunday for almost the rest of her life or at least until she married and was removed to a different home.
It was almost impossible to imagine. She could not picture him reading the Bible for a pastime, even on Sundays as Papa did. She could not imagine him composing and delivering lengthy sermons from the high stone pulpit of the village church. She certainly could not see him established in the solid but inelegant vicarage beside the church. The man was handsome and athletic, framed for elegant and idle pastimes.
He was a younger son, of course. Rachel had always pitied gentlemen who had had the misfortue to be born second or third in the family. Unless there was some independent fortune for them to inherit, they really had little choice but to seek careers for themselves in the church or the army. She wondered why David Gower had not chosen the latter. He seemed physically more suited to life as a soldier. Of course, as a soldier one also had to exert oneself and even face danger not infrequently. Life in the church offered more luxury and ease, especially if one had a generous patron.
Algie was his cousin. And Algie had the church living in his possession, Singleton Hall being his principal residence, whereas Oakland was not Papa's main seat, though it was his favorite and most frequent place of residence. The Reverend David Gower would have an easy life. Algie was always generous and could be expected to be even more so with his own cousin. The vicar would doubtless be a very frequent visitor at the Hall. Perhaps he would even live there.
Rachel had not intended to fall in love with a clergyman. Indeed she had not intended to fall in love with anyone. She had prattled horribly there on the pavement. She had even asked the new vicar if he would have the second waltz with her that evening. Had she really done that? Yes, she really had. Mortifying thought. She had never asked a man to dance with her or walk with her or drive with her. Where was the need, when gentlemen fell all over themselves and one another to be granted the privilege of engaging her in one of those activities? She sometimes asked Algie, of course, but that was a different matter entirely. They had been friends for as far back as she could remember. She had asked the Reverend Gower to dance with her!
David! What a beautiful name. She had always imagined the hero of the David-and-Goliath story as just such a handsome man. This man, of course, would hardly fit into that story with his height. But then the biblical David had grown into King David, had he not?
By the time the Edgeley carriage drew to a halt outside the house on Grosvenor Square and set down the two young ladies, Celia Barnes was wondering if all the late nights and fairly early mornings were finally catching up on her friend. Rachel had gone for almost ten whole minutes without uttering a single word. She had been sitting in the carriage, holding on to the leather strap, a glazed look in her eyes and an almost foolish half-smile on her lips.
"Do you think the Brussels lace will be just a little too fussy for this evening, Celia?" she asked anxiously as she turned to wait for the footman to help her friend out of the carriage. "I do not wish to appear overdressed."
Celia knew that Rachel was back in the land of the conscious again.
David Gower was seated in Lord Rivers' very comfortable carriage later that evening on his way to the Simpson ball, his cousin opposite him. He was still feeling rather amused at the way Algie's feelings had been ruffled when he had teased him about the magnificent folds of his neckcloth.
"How many neckcloths did your poor valet wreck before he could come up with this piece of sheer artistry?" he had asked.
"Only four," Algie had replied, turning the whole upper part of his body in David's direction in order not to have his cheeks punctured by the sharp points of his shirt collar. "He was more careful than usual tonight."
David had shouted with laughter. "Perhaps if you could train yourself to sleep absolutely motionless on your back all through the night," he had said, "you could make the same creation serve for a whole week, Algie. It seems a shame to waste all that artistic effort on one evening's entertainment. Perhaps someone of some significance will be absent this evening and not even see it."
That was when Algie's feelings had become ruffled. He had pretended to take offense, anyway. David would not have been feeling so cheerful if he thought he had seriously hurt his cousin. He turned his thoughts to the evening ahead. It had been a long time since he had attended anything quite so frivolous as a ball. And a London ball at that. He quite looked forward to the experience. He would be no match for the splendor of the other guests, of course. His gray knee breeches, silver waistcoat, and blue evening coat had served him for all formal occasions during the previous two years. And he had not even tried to coax his neckcloth into anything but the simplest of knots. His coat was not particularly tight across his shoulders. He knew for a fact that Algie's valet had had to summon a footman to help him squeeze Algie into his.
But he did not particularly care about his slightly unfashionable appearance. After being away from society for some time, he viewed with amusement the more extravagant and impractical trends of fashion. Why look as if one had been poured into one's coat when afterward one was quite incapable of moving? Why view the world languidly through a quizzing glass when one had perfectly good eyesight? Why wear corsets and make every indrawn breath a torture? And if he considered the ladies, he could feel even greater amusement. Tiny lacy parasols that did nothing to keep the sun away from the complexion. Saucy little bonnets that were certainly not designed to keep the elements away from the head. He could go on and on.
Take that little neighbor of Algie's, for example. She was very pretty and very charming, but altogether a little bundle of frivolity. Poor Algie if he did have a tendre for her. Algie had his frivolous side too, but there was far more to the man. He took his responsibilities as landlord seriously. And he was a kind, unassuming man despite the affectation of his dress when in town. David hoped there was more to Lady Rachel Palmer than met the eye. But he very much doubted it.
She certainly had her fair share of vanity. She loved to be noticed. Of course, one could hardly blame her. She was undoubtedly good to look at if one was content to let one's eyes go no farther than skin-deep. Very good to look at, in fact. But her mother should certainly have taught her that one did not solicit the hands of gentlemen as dancing partners on the public streets. Especially not those of strangers to whom one had just been introduced.
It struck him suddenly that if a wedding between Algie and Lady Rachel ever did take place, she would be the leading lady of his parish socially. He would have to learn to deal with her himself. It was not entirely a pleasant prospect. The other girl, now, was different. She had neither looks nor character to attract during a chance meeting, but there was a great deal more to her than met the eye. He had sensed that she might be worth getting to know. And he was to waltz with her this evening.
"I don't know about you," Algernon said as the carriage slowed to join the back of the line of conveyances approaching the entrance to the Simpson residence, "but I plan to disappear into the card room as soon as I may."
"But you have promised two dances," David reminded him.
"True," Algernon sighed. "And the Simpsons are usually niggardly with the waltzes. Bet there will be no more than three or four altogether. We can play cards between times, David, and still fulfill our obligations. Rache is a marvel. She can dance the night away and still look as fresh as a daisy on Bond Street the next morning." He chuckled. "She likes being twirled in the waltz, just as if one were turning corners every moment. You were best to remember that, m'boy."
David laughed and peered out through the window at the impressive sight of liveried footmen helping ball guests from their carriages onto the red carpet that had been laid out for the occasion.
* * *
Rachel was trying to stand very still. Why did it happen to her far more than to any other young girl that her gown needed repair during balls? This ball had not even started yet and she had caught the hem of her pink underdress on the edge of a chair and torn such a gash in it that she had had to retire to the withdrawing room for repairs to be made. A maid was busy with needle and thread while Rachel stood patiently talking to Celia.
"It really will not show," Celia told her. "Be thankful that it was not the lace that tore. The gown really does look glorious."
"Well, so does yours," Rachel assured her magnanimously. "I told you, did I not, that that dark blue shade would be fare more becoming than the light color you picked out?"
"Yes, I think you are right," Celia said, glancing at her reflection in a mirror, pleased. "You always are. You have a far better dress sense than I."
"It is a matter of common sense, really," Rachel said. "You have pale coloring, Celia, and light hair. It is perfectly obvious that your clothes must be in vivid colors. And of simple design. Those small flounces are just the thing. I do hope Algie will be on time tonight. He almost never is. The first waltz is the second set of the evening. I would hate to have to dance it with someone else. I do feel quite embarrassed about what happened this morning, by the way."
"It comes of your habit of speaking before you think," Celia said without trying to comfort her friend. "You know I do not like other people to solicit partners for me, Rachel. All the time I am dancing with them I think that they would probably rather be anywhere than with me. Lord Rivers is a perfect gentleman, but still I have heard him say that he does not particularly enjoy dancing."
"Oh," Rachel said, biting her lower lip and looking even more guilty, "you mean my asking Algie if he would dance the second waltz with you. But how silly, Celia. He will not mind in the least. He knows that you are my particular friend, you see."
"But still, Rachel," Celia said firmly, "no more, please. I had rather sit among the chaperones all evening than have a single gentleman coerced into dancing with me."
"Well, Mr. Gower was not coerced," Rachel pointed out. "He asked you of his own free will."
"More to save me from some embarrassment, I think," Celia said. "But what was it that you were feeling embarrassed about?"
"Asking Mr. Gower to waltz with me," Rachel said. "How dreadfully forward of me, Celia. What must he think of me, do you suppose?"
"He probably thinks that you are a rather giddy young lady," Celia said mercilessly.
Rachel grimaced. "I was afraid so," she said.
Indeed since the morning she had recovered her senses to quite a marked degree. She had been presented to a perfect stranger in the middle of a public street and she had both fallen in love with him and solicited his hand for a waltz at a ball that evening. What a dreadfully lowering admission to have to make to herself. How vulgar! And how ridiculous when it had turned out that the stranger was a clergyman and the new vicar of her own parish to boot.
He really was dreadfully handsome, of course. But no, it was not his looks merely that had had her reacting so foolishly. It was that character she had detected behind his face and his eyes that had attracted her. But still, she did not know him. Not at all. It was more than stupid to think of being in love with him. And what would she do with such an infatuation anyway? She could never look on the man as a prospective husband. She was going to make a dazzling match when she married. Or failing that, she was going to marry Algie.
And that would sound dreadful too if she had put the thought into words, she thought, watching the maid cut the thread and smooth out the silk underdress and its covering of Brussels lace. There would be nothing whatsoever wrong with marrying Algie. He was a baron, perfectly well-set-up, quite respectable. She thought it entirely possible that she would marry him, and from choice too. She really did love Algie. It was just that marriage to him would not seem dazzling in any way. Comfortable, yes. Secure, yes. Dazzling, no.
Well, she thought, twirling before the mirror to make sure that the mended gown still fell perfectly to the floor, she was going to enjoy the evening. The first waltz with Algie. The second with Mr. Gower. She should not have asked him for that dance, but since she had, she was going to enjoy it, and she was going to show herself that he was merely an attractive man. She was not in any danger of losing her heart to him. Very far from it.
And the opening set was to be danced with the Marquess of Stanford. That had been a huge surprise. The man was known as one of the most eligible and elusive bachelors on the market. Not even on the market really. He must be well into his thirties already and showed no sign of giving up his single status, though he was wealthy, attractive, and charming, and had had mamas scheming for his capture for years. He very rarely singled out any of the young unmarried girls for any attention. And yet he had come up to her as soon as she had entered the ballroom, and before the accident with her gown, bowed and smiled, and entered his name on her card next to the opening set.
"We had better go, Celia," she said now, smiling her gratitude to the maid who had repaired her gown, "or we will miss the first set. Mr. Pope is to lead you out?"
"Yes," her friend replied. "And you are to dance with the Marquess of Stanford, Rachel? You will be the envy of every female at the ball."
"I do hope Algie arrives before the waltz," Rachel said. "And Mr. Gower for you, of course."
Lady Rachel Palmer was not difficult to spot in the ballroom, David found as soon as he and Algernon made their appearance halfway through the opening set. Perhaps it was because she was dancing with the Marquess of Stanford, a man who always seemed to draw all eyes his way. David remembered him from four years before when he had been in London last. Even at that time Stanford had been considered the catch of the marriage mart. He seemed able to combine those two fascinating qualities of warm charm and elusiveness. And it seemed he still wove his magic. David did not think that his were the only eyes on the couple.
There were Algie's, for example. He was actually watching them through a quizzing glass, a half-smile on his lips.
"Trust Rache!" he said with a chuckle. "Opening the Simpson ball with Stanford. She won't stop talking about it for a month."
David looked at her. Yes, even without her present partner, she would still draw eyes her way. She was extremely lovely, of course, as he had not failed to notice that morning. In the ball gown, about which she had boasted earlier, she looked exquisite, her figure, which he had been unable to judge beneath her pelisse, quite perfect. Everything was beautifully in proportion. It was not just her figure and gown that drew the eye, though. Indeed, there were many ladies present almost equally as lovely. It was not her dark hair and eyes either.
There was something else about Lady Rachel. It was the life and energy radiating from her. One had only to look at her to see that she was totally absorbed in her enjoyment of the scene and the activity around her.
Yes, a very attractive young lady indeed. He would doubtless have been smitten by her had he met her a few years before. At that time beauty and liveliness had been the only important attributes in a female. He had not looked for any greater depth of character. He now thought now it was a shame that girls such as Lady Rachel should be raised and educated in such a way that all their energies became devoted to the pursuit of frivolity.
David smiled to himself. He was at a ball, and what activity could be more frivolous? He might as well enjoy it. And indeed there was a certain delight in looking around yet again at a lavishly decorated room, heavy with the sight and scent of flowers, bright with the light from myriad candles, gay with the gowns and waistcoats and evening coats of fashionable dancers.
He looked around the room and located Miss Barnes, dancing with a young man he had not seen before. The waltz for which he was to partner her was next, he had learned. She looked quite pretty, dressed far more becomingly than she had been that morning. But she was not the sort of figure to draw attention. And yet she undoubtedly had far greater depth of character than her friend.
"Algie!" The set was over, Lord Stanford had already executed his bow and left Rachel, and a small cluster of her loyal followers was already hovering around her. She was hurrying toward the two of them, her face beaming with all the sunshine of her gaiety. "How fortunate that you spoke up for the first waltz earlier. My card is quite full already, and here is Sir Thomas Rey trying to persuade me to scrub out one name and insert his. I have been telling him how very naughty he is even to suggest such a thing."
David smiled when her eyes moved with a rush over Algie's shoulder and met his. Her flush of excitement seemed to deepen. "Good evening, Mr. Gower," she said. "Are you the one I must thank for getting Algie here on time? He has a dreadful habit of being late, you know. I was quite fearful that he would not be here in time for our waltz. I would never have recovered from the mortification of being a wallflower."
David bowed. "I believe you have his valet to thank this evening, Lady Rachel," he said. "The man was in top form and ruined only four neckcloths before achieving the creation you see before your eyes."
Rachel giggled and tapped her fan against Algernon's arm. "It is splendid, Algie," she said. "You look very distinguished."
David turned to Celia, whose partner had brought her to join the group. "Miss Barnes," he said, "how very charming you look in blue. Am I still to partner you for the waltz?"
She curtsied and blushed as she smiled back at him.
The second waltz of the evening was also the supper dance, Rachel had noticed as soon as she had consulted her program. She did not know quite if she looked forward to it or not. It was still dreadfully embarrassing to remember that she had asked Mr. Gower for the dance while on Bond Street that morning. And now he would not only have to dance with her, but he must also lead her in to supper and converse with her there until the dancing began again.
What if he had no wish to do either? What a dreadfully lowering thought! It would not normally have entered Rachel's head. She had grown to assume that most gentlemen sought out her company with some eagerness. But Mr. Gower was not most gentlemen. She rather suspected that he was quite different, in fact. And so she felt distinctly uneasy about the approach of the waltz.
He had not even glanced at her since greeting her at the end of the first set. She could swear it because, annoyingly, she had glanced at him a great many times. He had remained in the ballroom, unlike Algie and many of the other gentlemen, who disappeared quite frequently, probably into the card room, she suspected. And he had danced each set. He had talked almost constantly with Celia during the waltz. She had wondered what they had found to talk about. It was true that she had prattled almost nonstop to Algie, but then she always talked, while Celia rarely did.
And Mr. Gower had danced with several of those giggly girls who usually huddled together in groups. They must have been pleased. Several of them hardly ever danced. That was probably the reason they stayed so close to one another, and was also perhaps the reason Mr. Gower asked them, Rachel thought with a pang of guilt for the scorn she had often felt for those girls. Was the man teaching her a lesson in compassion?
But not a single glance at her. She did not know why she should feel chagrin at the fact. Plenty of other men had paid a great deal of attention to her. She was still feeling a glow of triumph at having danced with the Marquess of Stanford. And he was indeed charming. And attractive. He was possibly too thin, his face too angular to be called handsome. But definitely attractive. And he had looked at her appreciatively all the time they danced. He had made her feel as if she were the only lady worth looking at in the whole room.
Mr. Gower had looked at her in no such way. After making that one joke at Algie's expense, he had turned to Celia and focused entirely on a conversation with her. And Rachel had not failed to notice that he had given Celia quite as much of his attention as the marquess had given her.
She really did not want more for herself, did she? He just happened to be a very attractive man whom she had been unwise enough to admire before learning who he was. And even if she had not known this evening that he was a country vicar, she would surely have noticed that he was not the sort of man in whom it was wise to become interested. His evening clothes were not shabby by any means, but they were quite noticeably not new. And they were quite unadorned by fobs or chains or jewels. In fact, he looked plainly dressed in comparison with Algie.
And yet, she admitted to herself, it was understandable that she had become so easily infatuated that morning. He had a physique that made one scarcely notice his attire, and a face that could make one ignore both. It was his face that kept drawing her eyes against her will. He smiled constantly, yet not in that bright, artificial way of most people on such occasions. There seemed to be an enormous kindliness behind his smile. A great happiness even. But why should he not be happy? He was in London, in attendance at a grand ton ball.
Rachel frowned at the complexity of her own thoughts. It was not that kind of happiness, though. There was something about Mr. Gower that drew her, yet she really could not explain to herself what it was. All she did know was that she felt uncomfortable as gentlemen began to take their partners for the waltz. For once she did not know quite how she was to behave, what she was to say. Pointless to tell herself to behave naturally. Once one became aware of oneself, it was impossible to behave as one normally would.
She smiled gaily as she placed a hand in his and followed him onto the floor. "Are you not enjoying yourself immensely?" she asked, placing one hand on his broad shoulder and feeling the warmth of his hand against her waist. "I think there is no pleasure so exquisite as dancing. I always wish a ball would never come to an end."
"That would be all sugar with no bread and vegetables," he said with that smile that barely moved the muscles of his face. It was there behind his eyes and lurking at the corners of his mouth. "Do you not think that you would become weary after two or three days and nights of continuous dancing?"
She giggled. "I did not intend to be taken quite so literally, sir," she said. "Yes, I doubtless would be feeling rather footsore by perhaps the middle of August."
"But your sentiment was quite right," he said. "This is a lovely ball. The music is irresistible." And Rachel lost her breath for a moment as he twirled her unexpectedly in the middle of the floor.
"You are not a Puritan then?" she asked. "You do not frown upon such trivial pleasures?"
"I am here, am I not?" he said. "And dancing. It is not obligatory for a clergyman to walk around with a sober frown, you know. Indeed, if you know the Bible at all well, Lady Rachel, you will know that dancing has always been man's way of expressing exuberant spirits, even the spirit of praise and worship. Do you know the Psalms?"
Rachel grimaced. "Indeed, yes," she said. "The Bible is Papa's favorite book, and he tries constantly to make it everyone else's in his family."
He grinned. "Without much success?" he asked.
"Oh, I do think I would enjoy dancing before the Lord," she said. "I have always fancied that idea. Unfortunately, it is not Papa's way of appreciating the Bible. We more commonly sit soberly in the drawing room passing the book from hand to hand so that all may read a passage aloud for the edification of the others."
She giggled, and he smiled down at her.
"But what a very strange topic of conversation for a ball," she said.
"I find that people invariably feel obliged to introduce some pious topic into the conversation as soon as they know I am a clergyman," David said, a twinkle in his eye. "It seems we are seen as something of a race apart."
Rachel was disconcerted. She had no wish to give an impression of herself as a pious hypocrite. She smiled gaily again and set herself to chatter about trivialities for the remainder of the set. But why was it that she felt she had lost his attention? She had not. He looked at her and at no one else all the time they danced, and participated in each topic of conversation she introduced. His manner did not become either cold or distant. His eyes continued to smile.
But she knew that he had gone from her. For the first time she was conscious of her bright and artificial manner, of the essential emptiness of her conversation. Usually she talked and talked and never paused to wonder if she had anything of consequence to say. And gracious, she thought, that was the only way to be. One would trail through life in silence if one waited for something of moment to say.
What was it about David Gower? she wondered, puzzled, even as she continued to chatter with growing animation. And then she realized with something of a shock that what made him different from almost every other gentleman of her acquaintance was that he did not worship her. He was perfectly correct and courteous toward her. But there was nothing either flirtatious or openly admiring in his manner. To him she was just another dancing partner, even perhaps a rather tedious and silly one. It was a thoroughly lowering thought.
Rachel chattered on.
During the following week David cautiously enjoyed his temporary return to society. Over the previous five years his life had been one of somewhat intense study. At least, he amended for the sake of strict accuracy, the last two years had been intense. For the three years before that, he supposed he had studied and thought about as much as the average university student. Which was not saying a great deal.
Indeed he had always faced his future with some bitterness, though he had not known against whom he should direct that bitterness. He had always known that he could not expect to live a life of idleness. Though his father was a landed aristocrat and a viscount, he had never been a wealthy man. And almost all that he owned was to pass to his elder son, Rufus. David had always known that. It mattered not at all that Rufus had seemed far more suited to the studious life than he, or that he himself had wanted nothing but a life of idle pleasure.
His father had not wanted David to enter the army, and his own inclinations did not pull him in that direction either. There had been only one other choice for him. From an early age he had been destined for the church. But it had been a cynical, uncommitted young man who had entered Oxford. He had hoped that somehow he would advance in the church until finally he found a post to his liking. He had dreaded the thought of perhaps having to eke out a living somewhere in the country.
He had led a life of near-dissipation during his first years at Oxford. He had not been a virgin when he went there. But he quickly gained vastly more experience when he found just how many tavern maids and chambermaids were eager to oblige students. And it had taken very little money to satisfy them. He had also spent time playing cards, until he realized that his pockets just would not support the extravagance. He had drunk even when he did not have the money to finance his pleasure. It was very possible to live on credit, he had discovered.
And finally, despite himself, he had begun to learn, to read and study for pleasure, to realize that perhaps the life of the mind was not as deadly dull as he had always assumed. And then had come his meeting with Jonathan Forbes, a fellow student who had been much influenced by the Methodist preachers. Drinking, partying, womanizing had all been gradually and unconsciously neglected as he spent more and more time discussing and arguing with his new friend and a few other acquaintances.
And the end of it all was that he had found himself a changed man. Not a Methodist. He believed strongly in the established church, did not believe that fragmenting it could ever achieve any good. But he had found that his religion had come alive for him and that his desire to be a clergyman was no longer a matter of necessity, but one of deep personal commitment.
Since then David had no longer been bitter about his lot. Indeed he blessed the fate that had made it necessary for him to think beyond the next day's entertainment. No longer was he ambitious for the most glamorous job the church could offer. He wanted only to serve as a man of God was meant to serve, working mainly with the poorest of the poor. He was no longer interested in the acquisition of money or position or possessions. It was not that he gave them up in a spirit of painful self-denial. He just lost interest in them.
And he was happy. He had spent two years of utter contentment at Oxford. If there was one fact to disturb that mood, it was only his impatience to have a living of his own so that he could begin his life of service. And now he had that living. He had been extremely fortunate to find himself qualified at almost the same moment that the vicar in Algie's parish was retiring. He had not expected something so satisfactory quite so soon. He had accepted the offer with alacrity.
And now he was to have a holiday, back in his old life for a few weeks before leaving for his new parish with Algie. And it felt strange to be back. His old self seemed like someone from another life, and yet places and even many people looked familiar. He renewed several old acquaintances and watched with some ruefulness and some amusement as old friends became more aloof after a few days, puzzled at the change in him. He was no longer the riotous David Gower they had known.
Whereas several years before, he would have been eagerly seeking out some female or females of easy virtue with whom to amuse himself, now he looked around him at a different class of young woman. Not too high, of course. No lady of highest ton would be flattered by the attentions of a penniless clergyman. But nevertheless he thought it possible that he might meet someone of somewhat lower status who would be willing to share his life. It would not be an easy lot for any lady. He had almost nothing to offer. He had no money to start with, and he had no intention of even trying to build a comfortable fortune.
But David wanted to marry. Partly he felt it an obligation to do so. His father had always been loudly critical of the parson at home, arguing that as the man was a bachelor, he had no right to offer his advice on marriage and family life. No one should criticize the life of another until he had experienced that life or its kind for himself, the late Viscount Cardwell had said many times. And David agreed with him.
But getting married was not just a duty. It suited his inclination to wed. He had given up promiscuity two years before, entirely from personal choice, but his desire for women had not died. He needed a woman, someone with whom he could regularly and lawfully satisfy the cravings that had troubled him for all of two years. Now that he was to have a living of his own, he could finally think of taking a wife. He had very little to offer her, it was true, but he was to have his own church, his own vicarage, his own parish.
His thoughts turned frequently to Miss Barnes. It seemed that, as he had suspected from the start, she was the daughter of a gentleman of small means. She was fortunate to have Lady Rachel as a friend. It seemed doubtful that she would have had a Season otherwise, Algie had told him. She perhaps would not react with contempt to his attentions.
She was, moreover, just the sort of lady he had thought to choose for a wife. She was quiet and unassuming, sensible. She seemed neither framed nor inclined toward a life of frivolity. She was not pretty, but on the other hand, she was not unattractive either. She was a little taller than her friend, and thinner. He felt no stirring of physical desire for her, it was true. But that would develop with time. He liked her, or at least he was growing to like her.
A week's acquaintance was very little, he supposed, when one was thinking in terms of a lifetime commitment to a very intimate relationship. He had visited her a few times when Algie called at Grosvenor Square. He had taken her driving and walking. He had shared a box with her and Algie and the Earl of Edgeley's family at the theater one evening. And he had danced with her twice at the Simpson ball and sat with her, Algie, and Lady Rachel at supper. He hoped to continue the acquaintance without giving too soon perhaps the impression that he was about to offer for her. He wanted a little time yet before making any irrevocable decision.
He wished only that his acquaintance with Miss Barnes did not bring him into such frequent contact with her friend. He always felt a little uncomfortable with Lady Rachel Palmer. She was a girl one could hardly prevent oneself from watching. She was always so full of life and gaiety. And she was very lovely to look at, of course. But she was an enigma to him. He could never be quite satisfied that he understood her.
She was ambitious, he had thought. She had her heart set on making a brilliant marriage and was working single-mindedly toward achieving that aim. She had set her sights on the Marquess of Stanford and appeared to be succeeding. The marquess had visited at Grosvenor Square the afternoon after the ball and had come to pay his respects at the Edgeley box when they were at the theater. David had felt somewhat sorry for Algie, who clearly loved the girl but was standing aside in his usual unassuming way, watching her try to make a more brilliant match for herself.
Yet all the evidence did not fit such an interpretation of Lady Rachel's character. She always greeted Algie with such exuberant joy that David could not escape the conclusion that she loved him too. And her face was always alight with happiness when she chattered away to his cousin. If she was ambitious, she was not attempting to achieve her goals at the expense of those dear to her. She was not turning her back on the faithful Algie. And she was loyal to Miss Barnes. She always made sure that her less-glamorous friend was included in any entertainment of which she was to be a part.
And there was her exuberance, her silliness, her frivolity. She undoubtedly expended a great deal of energy on trivialities. And her conversation was less than profound. The temptation was to dismiss her as a foolish, empty-headed young girl who was centered entirely on self. And yet he could not be satisfied that this was Lady Rachel either. There was a vibrance about the girl, and some inner force or restlessness that defied explanation.
And he did not even know why he wished to explain her. Was it because she was to be his parishioner and he knew that he must get to know her eventually? Yet he did not feel the same compulsion with her parents, and they would be just as much his parishioners. David would have far preferred to see a great deal less of Lady Rachel. He would have been more comfortable without knowing her.
And now he had a garden party to look forward to. There was nothing very remarkable about that except that the party was in his honor. It was all very embarrassing really. His godmother lived in Richmond, and he had paid a call on her on his arrival in London. He had done so from choice as well as duty, as he had always been fond of her. Indeed as a boy he had frequently spent holidays with her and the late Lord Wexford, and they had always sent him lavish gifts at Christmas and for his birthdays.
She was almost crippled with rheumatism and was a frequent victim of chills and coughs, she had told him. Indeed on the day she had received him David had felt that she should have been in bed. And yet a mere few days later she had sent a letter telling him-not asking him-that she was going to give a garden party in his honor. He had no chance to protest. The invitations had gone out the same day.
And she was remarkably well-informed, he had discovered. The Earl of Edgeley and his family and Algie had all been invited. David felt uneasy about the whole thing. Apart from that one visit on his arrival in London, a visit he had cut short out of concern for her health, he had not seen her for three years. She really did not know him now. He was no longer the sort of person for whom one gave a lavish party.
Rachel was wearing a rose-pink muslin dress, its hem scalloped and embroidered in a deeper pink, its sash of a matching shade. Her straw hat was held in place by a wide pink ribbon that passed over the crown, drew the sides of the brim against her ears, and tied in a dashing bow beneath her right cheek. She felt very fetching and had drawn a compliment from Lady Wexford on her arrival at the garden party.
It was an outfit that she had been keeping for a special occasion. And what more special occasion could there be than a garden party in Richmond on a perfect late-spring afternoon? Especially when Algie was going to be there to admire her. He always appreciated fashionable clothes. And more especially when she knew that the Marquess of Stanford was to be there and had expressed his gratification to know that she was to be in attendance too.
Rachel was very pleased with the progress of that particular relationship. He had sent flowers to her the morning after the Simpson ball and visited in the afternoon. He had singled her out for attention several times since. Indeed, she had heard that they had become quite an on-dit about town. The marquess just was not known to show such interest in any lady of the ton.
She was elated. She could not have hoped for any greater sign of success. At the same time, she was cautious. She did not wish to appear too eager to receive his attentions. She did not want to appear foolish if his interest in her faded as fast as it had arisen. Besides, she was conscious of the fact that he was a great deal older than she and that he treated her with a charming indulgence, almost as if he dealt with a child. She was not at all sure yet that she wished to marry the marquess. And she was equally aware of his own caution. Apart from that one visit after the Simpson ball, he had spent only a few minutes at each function in her company.
And the same thing had happened at the garden party. He had greeted her as she strolled with her parents and Celia down by the river, out of sight of the house and the upper lawn, where Lady Wexford presided and the tables were spread with refreshments. He had taken her arm and walked with her for ten minutes, amusing her with a description of a riverboat race in which he had once participated and been tipped into the water. And then he had returned her to her parents, bowed over her hand, and disappeared in the direction of the house again.
Rachel was not disappointed. She did not want him with her all afternoon. Algie was coming toward the river, and she waved her parasol gaily in his direction. He lifted her hand to his lips when he came up with them and complimented her on her appearance, did the same to Celia, drew an arm of each through his, and proceeded to stroll with them back along the riverbank again.
Algernon and Celia talked. Rachel did not. She could not seem to keep her head from turning in the direction of the hidden house and upper lawn. Had Mr. Gower not come with Algie? But he must have. He was the guest of honor. Of course, as such he would doubtless have to stay close to Lady Wexford. He probably would not come down to the river at all. But she could not concentrate on the conversation, and she could not stop her eyes from turning in the direction from which he would come, if he came.
"Shall we cross to those trees?" Algernon suggested. "I see General and Mrs. Harding over there. I played cards with him the other evening. Very decent sort of fellow."
Celia turned obediently.
Rachel drew her arm free. "You two go," she said. "I would really far prefer to return to the upper lawn. To tell the truth, Algie, I am starved. I shall follow Mama and Papa up to the house. No, no." She held up a hand and smiled dazzlingly at the other two, who had both turned back. "Don't let me spoil your pleasure. I should feel guilty if I dragged you back with me. And the Hardings may think you are trying to avoid them. I shall be with Mama in but a moment. There will be no impropriety at all."
She whisked herself around and began to stride purposefully up the slope before the other two could make any protest. She smiled brightly at the other strollers she passed.
But she stopped before she reached the top of the rise that would bring the house into full view. What was she doing? The hunger story was, of course, false. She was going in search of Mr. Gower. She was being more foolish than she had thought it possible for her to be. The man had shown no interest in her from that first day on. He treated her with the merest courtesy only, he had shown a marked preference for Celia. And she knew with her rational mind that it was right that it be so. Celia was eminently suited to life as a vicar's wife. The thought of herself in that role was ludicrous.
Why, then, was it that she could not put him from her mind? Why was it that she counted the hours until she might next expect to set eyes on him? Why must she be developing an obsession for the one man who seemed quite uninterested in her? Was that the attraction? Would she lose interest in him if he would just show some in her?
She should be wholeheartedly wishing for an attachment between Mr. Gower and Celia. There was much in favor of such an attachment. She loved her friend. She wanted her to be happy. And she would have her close to Oakland if Celia married the vicar. But she could not wish for such a thing, Rachel thought in an agony. She could not.
Rachel's steps slowed. She must not go on. If she did, she would see him on the upper lawn and she might well begin to make a thorough cake of herself. People would begin to notice that she was pursuing the new vicar of her home parish and that he was in no way interested in her. She glanced back down the slope to the distant figures of Algie and Celia, standing with the general and his wife. She could not return to them. Her behavior would seem decidedly peculiar.
There were trees close to her on the right. They looked to be deserted. Perhaps she could lose herself among them for a while until she could feel sure that Algie and Celia had come back up to join the main party. In fact, Rachel thought as she walked far enough into the thicket to be out of sight of those people strolling on the lower lawn, it was an inspired idea. She had not realized just how much she was missing her life in the country and the frequent opportunities for solitude.
Rachel loved company, it was true. But it was equally true that she loved to be alone, especially when out-of-doors. It was during such times that she experienced her favorite and her most frustrating feeling, that feeling of excitement and exhilaration welling to the surface and sometimes even spilling over so that she was forced to run or to dance, to shout or to sing. The only thing she did not like about such feelings was that she could never explain them to herself. There was the exuberance, the reaching out for something more valuable than anything else in life or beyond it. But what was that something? She had often stood with her arms outstretched, her face lifted to the sky, and longed and longed for... what?
This was not quite such a moment, but it was very welcome, nonetheless, the unexpected interval of quiet peace. The little stream bubbling over the uneven ground was the item that finally took her mind completely away from the garden party and her dreadful infatuation for a man who should be no concern of hers whatsoever.
Two minutes after spotting the stream, Rachel was sitting beside it, her hat discarded on the ground at her side, her dress pulled safely up to her knees, so that it would not get wet, and her slippered feet resting on a large rounded stone over and around which the icy-cold stream gurgled its way to the river below. Her weight was braced on her hands behind her. She was humming a tune and watching her tapping toes.
David had indeed been detained on the upper lawn. He had deliberately stayed with his godmother for a while, taking her arm, leading her to a chair in the shade, and scolding her for putting herself to the trouble of arranging such an entertainment for him.
"Nonsense!" she said. "You know you are the son I never had. Or the grandson, rather. It is no compliment, is it, Davy lad, to be told that you might have been my son? Now, to business. You are to come to live with me immediately, my boy, and we will find genteel employment for you."
David smiled down at her. "I told you when I called on you, Godmama," he said, "that my cousin has given me the living of Singleton. I am most fortunate. And I shall be starting my work there at the beginning of summer."
"That is nonsense, of course," she said. "You would die of boredom in such a life within a month, Davy. I have been thinking about the matter, and I have decided to bring you to the attention of my friend Bishop Haines. He will find something more suitable for you here."
It took David many minutes of patient talk to persuade his godmother that indeed he had no wish for the appointment that she was convinced she could make possible for him. She seemed still not to believe at the end of their conversation that he really wished to begin his work in a country parish, longed to make a start, in fact.
"You are a proud and stubborn boy, Davy," she said at last, laying a gnarled hand on his arm. "You always were, I remember. I had forgotten that. But enough. This is a party. Let me introduce you to some people who might be useful to you when you do decide to settle in town."
And David had to be content to leave her unconvinced. And he was forced to spend another half-hour conversing with the people who she deemed would be useful to him. At the end of that time his face was stiff from smiling and he felt weary from the unaccustomed social activity. He longed to see a familiar face. Where was Algie? he wondered. But even greater than the desire to see someone he knew was the need for peace and quiet.
There was a thicket running down the eastern side of the grounds, and if he remembered correctly, there was a small stream trickling through it down to the river. He could imagine no more pleasant diversion at the moment than to go and find it. If only no other guests had decided to stroll that way! He slipped among the trees when he thought no one was observing him, feeling only a slight pang of guilt. No one would miss him for half an hour.
David almost did not disturb Rachel. He recognized her instantly despite her dishabille and despite the fact that she was more than half turned away from him. He had no wish to exchange any more bright social chatter with anyone for a while that afternoon. Certainly not with this particular beautiful little widgeon. But something held him to the spot when his mind told him to turn and make his escape before she spotted him.
She looked so amazingly out of character. He had seen her always as a creature of society. He would not have expected the girl to have an original thought in her head. She should be out on the lawn, taking dainty bites out of a sandwich, flirting discreetly with Stanford and every gentleman who glanced her way, not sitting hatless on the grass beside the stream. And with her dress above her knees, displaying very shapely legs. And toes tapping in time to the tune she hummed.
And it was the tune that intrigued him most. "A mighty fortress is our God," she hummed. "Da da da da da dum de da da." And after the flourish of the second line she resumed the humming. A hymn tune. Martin Luther, no less. Most out of character, he would guess.
Amusement finally got the better of discretion. "Da da da da dum de dum de da da," he finished with her, and grinned as she turned sharply in his direction. "Are you not afraid of getting your slippers wet, Lady Rachel?"
"Oh," she said, "you did startle me. I had quite forgotten where I was. No, I am afraid I have not spared a thought to my slippers. They are quite dry, though." She blushed hotly and edged her dress over her knees and down her legs, hoping that their bareness had not been too noticeable from where he stood.
Rachel felt immediate guilt. It seemed that she was not to win that victory over temptation after all. But, she thought determinedly, she was going to behave herself. She was not going to use her charms on Mr. Gower or chatter brightly in order to entrance him. She was going to be her own more sensible self and there would be no danger whatsoever that he would succumb to the general male tendency to worship her.
Almost against his will David crossed the space that lay between them and looked down at the bubbling stream. "I knew this was here," he said. "I came in search of a moment's peace. Did you?"
"No," she admitted, "but I recognized it immediately when I found it. I like being alone. Just thinking and enjoying nature. Sometimes one tires of having to be gay all the time."
He looked down at her in some surprise. "It is the smiling that tires me," he confided. "One becomes afraid that the expression will become habitual and one will be doomed to go around for the rest of one's life grinning like an idiot."
Rachel laughed. "But you are always smiling anyway," she said.
He grimaced to give the lie to her words. "You mean it has happened already?" he asked in mock horror.
"Oh, no." Rachel laughed again, in delight. "I did not mean a social smile." She regarded him for a moment, her head to one side, "It comes from inside, I think. Even when your face is in repose, as it is now, there is a smile behind your eyes. And on your lips. I cannot explain exactly."
He stooped down on his haunches beside her. "You terrify me," he said with a more open smile. "Can you read my mind too?"
"No," she said, embarrassed suddenly. "But I think you are a happy man. Are you?"
He did not answer for a moment. He looked at her with close scrutiny. "Yes, I am," he said quietly. "Strange. My godmother has just been telling me how unhappy I must be to be going to a parish in the country. Perhaps she has not looked as deeply into my eyes as you have."
He wished he could have recalled that last sentence even as it came from his mouth. He had not meant it to sound the way it did. It sounded flirtatious and provocative. And she obviously thought so too. She blushed deeply.
And their eyes became locked. Neither seemed capable of looking away.
"How could she not?" Rachel said after a tense pause. "They are beautiful and compelling eyes." And it was her turn to hear with dismay the words she had spoken.
The little thicket suddenly seemed very quiet and very secluded, and the distance between them uncomfortably close. David swallowed noticeably and got hurriedly to his feet.
"This party is in my honor," he said. "I must not disappoint my godmother by staying away any longer."
Rachel scrambled to her feet beside him and caught at his sleeve. "Please," she said in a rush, "I did not mean anything by what I said. I believe you do not approve of me. I have sensed it ever since we met, and I regret it. You think me silly, do you not? And forward. And you are quite right. I am very often both when I am with other people. But I did not mean anything just now. I was not really flirting with you."
His eyes had widened. He took her hand in both of his and held it tightly. "I did not think it," he said, looking earnestly into her eyes. "And I have not disliked you. Perhaps I have thought you a little giddy, but I see now how unjust I was to form such a hasty opinion. Forgive me. You are to be one of my parishioners, and I shall be responsible for your spiritual welfare. I wish to be your friend. I did not think you flirted any more than I did. Come, smile at me and tell me that we will be friends."
Rachel smiled. "Friends," she agreed, and withdrew her hand discreetly from between his. But he could not have looked very deeply into her eyes, she thought, or he would have seen the guilty truth there. It was true. It was no longer to be denied. She was in love with him, head over heels, topsy-turvy in love. Adoration. Obsession. A physical, throbbing ache. A moment longer with her hand in his and she would have flung the other arm around his neck and drawn his face down to hers. A man she could never even dream of trying to attach as a husband. What a wicked trick of fate!
"Have you eaten?" he was asking. "Let us go in search of some tea, shall we?" He held out an arm for hers.
Rachel was glad of the opportunity to break the tension of her own mood. She looked down at her abandoned bonnet and giggled. "I believe I would shock not a few people if I walked back thus," she said. "I do hope the hem of my dress is not wet or covered with grass."
"I shall turn away and admire the water," he said with a grin, "and I expect that while I do so, some power will transform you once again into the very proper Lady Rachel Palmer."
Little more than five minutes later the Reverend David Gower emerged from the trees with an immaculate Lady Rachel on his arm, and they made their way across to the upper lawn, still crowded with guests.
"You said that Lady Wexford believes you unhappy," Rachel said. "Does she think that you will not be contented with your new church?"
He smiled down at her. "She has lived most of her life close to town," he explained. "She cannot imagine anyone choosing to live in the countryside."
"And will you be content there?" she asked. "Will you not find your parish duties tedious? Or do you plan to spend most of your time with Algie and the rest of the gentry?"
"I shall socialize with the gentry," he said carefully, "because they will be my parishioners and as much entitled to my services as anyone else. But I intend to spend most of my time with the poor, since there are far more of them than there are of the wealthy."
"You will not be bored?" she asked, wide-eyed. "Or restless? You will not feel that your education and your talents are being wasted?"
He looked down at her, his eyes as serious as she had seen them. "You read the Bible," he said. "You told me so. Where was our Lord to be found during his earthly life? Among the rich, yes. But far more often among the poor. And did He ever seem bored or unhappy? I am His servant, Lady Rachel, and therefore a servant of the poor. I believe I will be happy. You see, I am also a servant by choice."
There was a depth behind his eyes that was not quite a smile. Rachel stared, fascinated. She had never heard anyone speak quite like this before. Certainly not anyone of her own class. And certainly not a handsome young man who was more or less fashionably dressed and in attendance at a garden party held in his honor at one of the mansions of Richmond.
"Rache!" Lord Rivers was making his way across the lawn toward them, Celia Barnes on his arm. "We were about to call out the Bow Street Runners to search for you. And all the time you were ingratiating yourself with the new vicar. I hope you have been suggesting that he keep his sermons shorter than we have been used to. Forty minutes with Vicar Ferney, David, m'lad. And that was on the days when the text did not inspire lengthy reflections! Many is the time in the last few years I have regretted not having cushions installed in my pew as I am entitled to do."
They all laughed and turned toward the tables, where a sumptuous feast was still spread out. Rachel looked up at David Gower and smiled as she caught his eye. He gave her a warm and comfortable smile in return. There was no worship in his eyes, but there was kindness and friendship, she believed. It was a sensible look, one she would do well to emulate. Not only had she chosen to fall in love with a clergyman, but she had had the misfortune to choose a man dedicated to his calling.
Such an infatuation would just not do at all.
It was two weeks later before Lord Rivers returned to the country and Singleton Hall, taking David with him. The Season was more or less at a close. He never particularly enjoyed staying until the bitter end. Once most people had left for the country or one of the spas, social entertaiments became somewhat tedious. One saw the same faces wherever one went.
And as he explained to David, Edgeley and his family would be coming home in five days' time and they would soon be followed by a dozen houseguests who would be staying for a few weeks. Miss Barnes, of course, would be coming with Rachel. And then David would want to be in the country for a week before Vicar Ferney retired and removed thirty miles to take up residence with a bachelor brother of his. There would be many details that David would wish to talk over with his predecessor.
And so they came to stay at Singleton Hall and David found that he was indeed busy, his days filled with happy activity and plans. He found himself impatient at having to wait out the final week until he could take up residence in the vicarage and start visiting his parishioners and getting to know his parish.
The challenge facing him excited him enormously. And the move to the vicarage would be the symbolic beginning of his service. It was true that the house was the most imposing in the village of Singleton and perfectly comfortable within. And he would have the services of an excellent housekeeper, who had lived there for forty years and was reputed to be able to convert even bare stones into a banquet. But even so, the house would be far humbler than any he had lived in in his five-and-twenty years. Moving there would be a real beginning to the life he had set himself, a life divorced from the privileges he had always taken so much for granted. He was impatient to be in his new home.
David was very thankful to be in the country at last, away from the noise and the constant round of activities of London. Not that he had participated in many events after his godmother's garden party, it was true. The enjoyment of going from one entertainment to another had palled, he had told himself as he refused more than once to join Algie at some event. He had seen something of town and society again, he had told himself, and now he was ready to begin his life's work.
But he knew that he was not being quite truthful with himself. He could have continued to enjoy the holiday in London, though there was no question of the fact that he longed to be in his own parish. He could have continued to develop his acquaintance with Miss Barnes. Indeed he had done so to a very limited extent. No, it was his uneasiness and perplexity over Lady Rachel that had kept him at home when he would normally have been out with Algie. He had avoided meeting her whenever possible.
It had not always been possible. She had been at the opera one evening with a party that included Lord Stanford, and he had felt obliged to accompany Algie to her box during an interval to pay his respects. And she had been walking in the park with Algie one afternoon when he was there with Miss Barnes. The four of them had ended up walking together. But apart from those two occasions, he had not set eyes on her for two weeks.
He did not know quite why he felt uneasy. After all, nothing had happened during that meeting at the garden party. Nothing at all. They had talked and laughed together, and he had taken her to tea. That was all.
But the trouble was, that was not all by any means. He had seen a different side to Lady Rachel Palmer there at the stream. She had not been her usual self, brightly sociable, chattering on about trivialities. She had been enjoying her solitude, enjoying it utterly, with no regard for her appearance, and with no concern for what she might be missing at the party. It was as if she had put off a mask. Even when she had seen him, there had been no trace of flirtatiousness in her manner or conversation. And paradoxically he had found her quite enchanting.
Dangerously enchanting, in fact. He had felt the pull of her attractiveness as if it were a tangible force. He had wanted to stay there and talk with her. He had felt relaxed and happy for a few minutes. Until there had been that tension between them. And then quite unexpectedly, without any warning at all, he had wanted more. His arms had ached to reach out for her. She had looked infinitely desirable. Afterward, in fact, he did not know by what good fortune he had overcome the urge to close the distance between their mouths. The pull had been almost irresistible.
And she had felt it too. When he had withdrawn in confusion, she had leapt to her feet, clearly agitated. And she had assured him that she had not been flirting with him. And she had told the simple truth. There had been no flirtation on either side. Nothing that might explain or excuse what had happened. And something had definitely happened, even if they had not so much as touched each other.
Perhaps he was refining too much on a small matter, he had thought in the days that followed. Perhaps she had forgotten about it as soon as they returned to the party. But he did not think so. She had blushed and looked quite unlike her usual bright self on the two occasions on which he had seen her since. She remembered too. And she was as uncomfortable as he.
But what could he do? David thought now at Singleton Hall, knowing that soon she would be arriving at Oakland and that he would no longer be able to avoid frequent meetings with her. Apologize? But how could one apologize for something that had not happened? Openly discuss his unease with her? Impossible. He could only hope that the embarrassment would have passed with time. After all, she would be busy with her houseguests, and he would be occupied with his new parish work.
The trouble was that he liked the girl. That was the hard part. He would find it far easier to fight this attraction he felt for her if only he could continue to see her as a frivolous, silly, selfish young girl. An attraction that was merely physical could not survive long. But he could no longer see Lady Rachel that way. There was far more to her than those qualities. He was not sure how much more, but of one thing he was sure. She was a complex character, an interesting character who would be well worth getting to know.
But how could he risk getting to know her? He certainly could not allow any deeper infatuation to grow. He could not allow himself to fall in love with her. He was an impoverished clergyman, pledged to be a servant of the poor. She was the daughter of a wealthy earl. He had his quiet life of service all planned out. She had a dazzling future ahead, perhaps as the bride of the Marquess of Stanford, perhaps as Algie's wife. There could be no question of any connection whatsoever between him and Lady Rachel Palmer, except that of vicar and parishioner.
He must concentrate his mind on finding himself a wife. And he still felt that he could do no better than to court Miss Barnes. He had seen nothing to censure in her character during his encounters with her in London. He was not at all sure that she would be pleased by a marriage proposal from him. Perhaps she hoped for something better. But there was no hurry anyway. She was to be at Oakland for several weeks. He would take the whole business slowly. He would want both of them to be very sure before taking any irrevocable step.
If only it were not at Oakland that she was to be a guest! If only he did not have to see Lady Rachel every time he saw Miss Barnes.
Rachel was chattering brightly to Mr. Holland and Mr. Robertson, two gentlemen farmers who had been flirting with her ever since she had left the schoolroom three years before, though Mr. Robertson was now betrothed to Clara Higgins. All the evening's guests were now assembled in the drawing room at Singleton Hall. Algie's butler would be summoning them to dinner at any moment.
It was fortunate that they had arrived home before Vicar Ferney retired and left the neighborhood altogether. Rachel was remarkably fond of the old man, as they all were, even though they were in the habit of complaining and joking about the length of his sermons and his tendency to hide away in his study from one week's end to another if no one happened to bring to his attention a serious illness or an imminent death. Papa had deliberately arranged their homecoming so that they would be in time to attend this farewell dinner that Algie had planned.
Rachel was feeling very happy. Just half an hour before, she had met Algie for the first time in five days, and she had been so delighted to see him that she had had to restrain herself from rushing into his arms and hugging him until she broke every bone in her arms. She had only to see his unruly fair hair, his large, distinguished nose, his absurdly high shirt points, and his broad, well-set shoulders to know that she still felt as great an affection for him as ever. She had been dreadfully afraid that it would no longer be so. She would have felt as if the ground had been pulled from beneath her feet if she could no longer think of Algie in terms of her future.
She had not either cried or hugged him. She had merely offered her hand in such a way that he was obliged to carry it to his lips, even assuming that he had not intended to do so anyway, and told him so eagerly of all she had done in the days since they saw each other last, including a detailed account of their journey from town, that her words tripped all over themselves and she was quite breathless when she finished. Algie had laughed and squeezed her hand and called her "Rache" in that endearing way of his, and she had been entirely happy. She had been able to turn to Mr. Gower and offer him her hand without giving away to any observer the fact that her heart was beating right up into her throat. She had almost been able to meet his eyes. She had fixed her own quite firmly on the bridge of his nose, between his eyes. She did not think she had even blushed.
The last two weeks and more had been dreadful. She did not think she had ever been so unhappy or so out of charity with herself. Ever since Lady Wexford's garden party she had been feeling almost sick with love for David Gower. Just the thought of him as he had looked stooping down beside her at the edge of the stream in the not-quite-fashionable, not-quite-shabby clothes he had worn several times since she had known him, their less-than-new state doing nothing to disguise the splendidness of his frame and certainly nothing to distract one from the loveliness of his face: just the thought of him was enough to make her stomach lurch uncomfortably. She had wanted to touch him. She had wanted him to touch her. Not just to touch her but to… to touch her!
She had indulged her longings for the remainder of their stay in London. At night before going to sleep she had imagined herself holding long conversations with him, and because it was imagination and she could control what they said, she was witty and wise. And he was respectful and admiring. And she had imagined him touching her, his fingers light and soothing in her hair, his shoulders and chest firm and warm beneath her fingers. She had imagined a kiss that was warm and very, very tender. And love words that they murmured to each other.
And yet on the two occasions when she had met him before he left for the country with Algie, she had found it almost impossible to meet his eyes, and quite impossible to behave and converse naturally. And she had realized just how wild and unrealistic her dreams were. David Gower had been his usual quiet, charming self on both of those occasions, no trace left of the magnetism she had thought was between them at the garden party. She had imagined it all. He felt nothing at all for her.
Her days were otherwise troubling. She had seen a great deal of the Marquess of Stanford. As the Season drew to an end, he had seemed to throw off the caution that had kept him at something of a distance for the previous weeks. He had called on her frequently, taken her driving, invited her to join parties at the opera and at Kew Gardens.
And she had been thrown into turmoil, sensing that he was about to declare himself, not knowing how she was to respond. She liked him. She was flattered and excited by his attentions. She knew that marriage to him would represent success beyond her wildest dreams. She would have wealth and social prominence for the rest of her life. She would be mad to refuse him. She would never have a more advantageous offer.
But how could she concentrate on preparing for his declaration when her dreams were taken up with David Gower? How could she bear to accept him when she knew that to do so would take her away from Oakland and David? What should she do?
And during the final days, when the marquess had already called on her papa, and she knew the day and hour when he would pay his addresses to her, she had longed for Algie. Her dear, undemanding, kind, safe friend! She had neglected him so much. She had come to London convinced that she would marry him one day. And what had happened? She had grown to contemplate marriage with another man, and she had fallen in love with a third man. She had all but forgotten about her faithful neighbor.
She had not refused the marquess. She had not accepted him either. She had told him only that she did not know, that she was quite unable to make a decision at that time. He must consider her answer to be no, she had said, because she could not expect him to accept such an indefinite answer. But he had smiled at her in his charming way, raised her hand to his lips, and assured her that such an answer suited him admirably, since he had promised to spend the summer at Tunbridge Wells with his sister and would prefer to leave the celebration of his betrothal until the autumn.
She was fortunate, Rachel thought. She might still make that advantageous marriage, but she had the summer during which to sort out her feelings, to put behind her a foolish and pointless infatuation, and to find out exactly what her feelings for Algie were.
All she knew now, at the start of her first evening back home, was that she was happy. She was back with Algie again, and safe. And she had met Mr. Gower once more without the earth shattering at her feet.
It had been a successful evening, Rachel judged a few hours later. Algie's cook, unused to catering to large numbers, nevertheless always seemed able to rise to the occasion. And Algie had entertained them all before the ladies left the dining room with a farewell speech to Vicar Ferney, his words expressing the affection they all felt. The old man had looked delighted to be reminded of several little anecdotes about incidents that might have been embarrassing or even annoying at the time they happened. There had been a great deal of laughter at the table, and they had all risen at Algie's bidding to drink a toast, first to the vicar who was leaving them and then to the man who was to take his place.
Rachel, warmed by her renewed fondness for Algernon, had found herself able to drink both toasts with equal goodwill. And afterward she and Celia had sung the songs they had practiced in London for the occasion, and other guests had also played or recited or sung for the entertainment of the nodding old vicar. They had even smiled through his lengthy speech of thanks, knowing that it was the last time they would be called upon to sit through one of his orations and well aware of the fact that his heart was in the right place even if he had not been granted the gift of interesting eloquence.
The Misses Farraday, spinster daughters of the old vicar's predecessor, had suggested cards eventually, and Algie, ever good-natured, obliged them. Most of the guests joined while Vicar Ferney and David retired to the library to discuss some last-minute business. Rachel was left to her own devices, it being an accepted fact in the neighborhood that she did not play cards and that when she was forced into doing so she played so badly that no one at her table could enjoy the game.
She slipped from the house, not even stopping to ask that a footman fetch her shawl. The night would be warm, she was sure, after such a hot day. She had smelled the roses as soon as she had got down from the carriage earlier. Algie had a rose garden at the east side of the house, a maze of pathways, trellises, and blooms.
She was home, Rachel thought happily, and she could finally put from her the madness of the previous few weeks when she had fancied herself in love with David Gower. It was not a pleasant feeling to be in love. It was so much more comfortable merely to love. To love Algie.
She had no difficulty in finding her way in the darkness. The moon was bright, and though there was no color in the blooms she passed, there was fragrance enough to give them infinite beauty. She breathed in their heavy scent and seated herself on a wrought-iron seat. She lifted her face to the sky and closed her eyes.
Oh, yes, she thought, these were the best of times, these moments when she was in the grip of a powerful and aching yearning, when she was aware of her own insignificance in comparison with the vastness of the universe. It was at such times that her physical being seemed almost a hindrance. She wanted to be out there, part of it all. She wanted to dance, to lift her arms to the sky, to worship the loveliness around her with the motions of her body. But on this particular night she did not give in to the urge. She sat quietly listening to the peace around her.
David Gower had just escorted the old vicar to the room he was to occupy for the night. He was to leave the vicarage the next day. All his personal effects were shut away in boxes and trunks. Algernon had persuaded him to stay the night at the Hall. And he was weary, the old man confided to David after he had explained the workings of the parish to his successor for surely the tenth time in the past three days. The party had been delightful; he was touched and honored. But such excitement was not for old men. David had persuaded him to retire quietly, promising to make his good-night greetings to the company gathered in the drawing room.
Yet finding himself alone, David was reluctant to rejoin the company immediately. He would steal some time for himself. After all, no one would know that he and the vicar were not still busy in the library.
And so it happened that the outdoors lured David, and the scent of the roses took him also in the direction of the rose garden. This part of Singleton Hall he would miss. He must see about planting some rosebushes in the garden of the vicarage. He had noticed that there were no flowers there at all. He stopped in order to take a partly open bloom gently between two fingers, cupping it in his palm. How exquisite, he thought, though it looked black against his hand instead of the deep red that he knew it must be.
He found his eyes focusing suddenly beyond the flower on the still form of Lady Rachel, seated on one of the garden benches. His first reaction was to believe that she held herself so still in the hope that he would not see her there. But when he looked more carefully, he could see that her head was thrown back and her eyes closed. She was unaware of his presence. She looked almost as if she were deep in prayer, though a more normal attitude of prayer would be a bowed head. He withdrew his fingers with unconscious care from around the red rose.
David took a step backward. He had no wish to intrude on someone who was so obviously concentrating on something beyond herself. He knew the value of such moments. But even as he began to turn so that he might make his way quietly to another part of the grounds, Lady Rachel opened her eyes and saw him. She was not startled. It seemed almost that he was part of her dream or her prayer or whatever it was that held her so rapt.
"Do you ever feel that you are imprisoned inside yourself?" she asked. "That you wish to get out and cannot?"
He smiled and strolled forward to stand before her. "Yes," he said. "It is the yearning of the soul for the absolute, I believe. Most of the time we are too busy to feel it. And perhaps that is just as well. It can be a frustrating feeling at the same time as it exalts the mind, can it not?"
Rachel gazed up at him with wide, dreamy eyes. "Is it death?" she asked "Is it a death wish I have?"
David clasped his hands behind his back and looked gently down at her. "In a sense, yes," he said. "But you must not begin to think you have a morbid mind. I have seen people die. It has been part of my training. And you know, there is often fear, bitterness, defiance at first. But almost always toward the end I have been awed to watch acceptance and peace, even a kind of radiance come to the dying person, as if he realized at last that it is foolish to cling to the body when he might be free to face the joy of eternity."
"But I do not wish to die!" Rachel said, looking more herself as she gazed up at the man who was standing before her. "I would not be able to see the moon and the stars or to smell the roses if I were dead. And I would not be able to feel and to wish and to wonder. I sometimes believe it is better to wonder than to know. Will not heaven be a rather dull place?"
He laughed softly. "I don't know," he said. "I may be a clergyman, but I have experienced only what is this side of the grave, you know."
"I forgot that," she said. "There is something about you-I do not know what it is. One imagines that you must know everything. I think if I were in great trouble I would come running to you, convinced that you could set everything right."
His smile had faded. "I am glad if I inspire confidence," he said. "It is part of my calling to do so. But you must not set me on a pedestal. I am but a man. No more." Rachel rose to her feet to stand in front of him. "And no less."
"I know," she said softly, and her hand rose quite of its own volition, it seemed, and she touched her fingertips to his cheek. "Yes, I know that."
He raised his own hand and covered hers, holding it against his cheek. "Sometimes I wish I were less so," he said, his eyes looking deeply into hers.
Rachel shook her head. But she said nothing, merely stared back, mesmerized by the night and the near-trance out of which his appearance had drawn her and by his quiet presence now so close to her.
There was no surprise whatsoever in his kiss. She had never been held thus against the full, warm length of a man's body. And she had never been kissed thus, with lips that trembled against hers and moved over them, parting and persuading hers to do likewise. She had never known a kiss in which tongues as well as lips embraced. She had never had a man's hands explore her back and her hips, cup and caress her breasts. And she had never felt a man's heartbeat quicken, his breath grow hot and quick against her face and throat. She had never known more than the brief, passionless meeting of her lips and Algie's in the sheep meadow. But nonetheless she knew no surprise.
She had known this would happen to her one day. Not with her mind. But she had known. This was right. This was the way it must be. It was all inevitable. She had always known that this would be the culmination of it all. And she had known this would be the man. She had sensed it as soon as she had set eyes on him on Bond Street that morning. She had known that they would love each other, that heaven and earth could not prevent this moment.
She surrendered to the inevitability of her love, making no coy endeavor to avoid the intimate meeting of their clothed bodies, obeying without shrinking the eager demands of his hands, his mouth, and his tongue. Her mind, which had been still in a half-trance when she rose to stand before him, awoke fully at his touch. She knew against whose body she pressed her own. She knew who was kissing her and wanting her with a hot physical urgency. And she could feel neither dismay nor guilt nor shame.
She was with the man she loved, the man she had always been meant to love, the man she had recognized at their first encounter. Nothing else mattered at that moment. Nothing else existed.
Rachel found herself gazing up into the shadowed eyes of the man who held her, her head bent back over his arm. She could not see if his eyes registered ardor or dismay. "David," she said, and she knew quite clearly what she said. Her mind deliberately formed the words. "I have always loved you. There is only you."
He did not immediately answer. He did not release her. She was still pressed to his warm length. Her head still rested comfortably against his strong arm. But he had gone away from her. She felt his withdrawal.
"I cannot say I am sorry," he said carefully. "An apology would imply that I feel regret. Perhaps I do feel sorrow for myself, that I have given in to a temptation that I thought in my pride I had under control. I had determined never to touch another woman-or even think of her in this way-until I had asked her to be my wife and she had consented. I have done you a great wrong, my dear, and knowing that, I shall suffer greatly for this night's indulgence."
"I can marry you," Rachel said eagerly. "We love each other, do we not? And once one admits to love, nothing else matters. I will be happy with you. It does not matter that you do not have rank or fortune. Those things are quite unimportant. And I will make you happy, David. You will see."
He was shaking his head. He had loosened his hold on her. He held her now by the hands. Looking at him, Rachel let her voice trail away.
"No," he said. "No, Lady Rachel, we can never marry. We both know that. My life can never be yours. I have done you a great wrong tonight."
"You think I cannot give up my life of luxury?" Rachel cried. "You think that I will miss all the assemblies and all the fashionable dresses? I would live in rags in a mud hut with you, David. I would!"
He was shaking his head still, a look of great gentleness in the eyes that looked down into her earnest face. "No, my dear," he said, "you will never be my wife. And with the rational part of your mind, the part that has not been affected by the magic of the moonlight, you know that it could never be. And so we must never be together like this again. We must never think of each other this way again."
Rachel's face was becoming stormy. "Give me a reason," she said, "Give me one good reason why I may not marry you."
He looked at her in silence and squeezed her hands. "I am not asking you," he said at last.
"Oh!" Rachel recoiled almost as if he had slapped her. "But you wish to, do you not? You wish to marry me? You do love me, David. Admit that you love me."
His hands tightened on hers once more and then released them altogether. "I do not love you, Lady Rachel," he said, clasping his hands behind his back and looking her very deliberately in the eye. "For a few mad moments I wished to possess you, that is all."
"Oh!" Rachel stood very still, trying to make out the expression in his eyes. "I don't believe you," she whispered eventually. "It is not true. Why do you want to hurt me? Because you are hurting so badly yourself? I… Oh."
She gathered the sides of her flimsy gown in her hands and turned from him to stumble and then run along the winding path to the terrace and along to the front doors of the Hall. She left behind her a young man whose hands clasped each other tightly behind his back as if only by clinging together could they hold him from collapse. The pallor of his face was not evident in the moonlight.
It was two days later before Lord Rivers paid a call at Oakland. He had been busy the day before seeing Vicar Ferney on his way to his new home and then going with David to the vicarage. He had wanted David to stay with him for a few more days. Indeed, his original offer had been for David to live with him permanently. But for some reason his cousin had been as eager to move into his new home as if he had just inherited a grand mansion.
And Algernon was feeling restless, as he always did for a week or so after his return from town. It was not that he disliked the country. In fact, he was always glad to return to what seemed to him a more normal way of life. But the change of pace was disconcerting after weeks of constant activity.
He had decided to walk over to Oakland to take Rachel out. Though that was not as straightforward a matter as it usually was, he realized. Her guests had not yet arrived, but Miss Barnes was there. Miss Barnes must have a walking partner too. He had thought immediately of David. He was the obvious choice. He knew Miss Barnes, and it had certainly appeared when they were in London that he had a preference for that young lady. She would be a good choice of wife for David. She was a calm, sensible woman. Algernon could imagine her as a vicar's wife, soothing the ruffled spirits of those who came to the vicarage to find David from home.
However, on this occasion it seemed unlikely that his cousin would be willing to come. He would still be too wrapped up in the novelty of his new life. Algernon chose Raymond Holland instead, and the four of them decided to walk across the hills to the Red Fox Inn, where they might refresh themselves with cider or lemonade before returning.
It had seemed like a good plan. Algernon had envisaged a quiet and peaceful afternoon stroll. But it was evident almost as soon as they left the house, Celia Barnes on Holland's arm, Rachel on his, that all was not well. Rachel's manner was bright and brittle, her chatter loud and constant. She pulled at his arm and strode on ahead of the other two so that they were a noticeable distance ahead before the house was even out of sight.
"What is it, Rache?" he asked, patting her hand on his arm during one of the rare moments when he was able to put in a word.
He might as well have taken a fork and burst a bubble. She stopped chattering immediately and seemed to collapse inward on herself.
"I have missed you, Algie," she said in such a tone that he thought she was about to cry. "I did not see you for five whole days. And now I have not seen you since the dinner the night before last. I have missed you."
"I did not call yesterday mainly because I thought you would need to rest after your long journey and the busy evening immediately after it," Algernon said. "I wish I had come now, Rache."
"I feel a little lost when I do not see you frequently," she said. "That is all. I don't think I altogether enjoyed London, Algie. I feel a little frightened."
He patted her hand again and looked closely at her. "What is this?" he said. "Is this the young lady who took the ton by storm, who had every eligible gentleman dangling after her? Is this the young lady who has been the envy of every other female because the Marquess of Stanford has been paying court to her? Is that the trouble, Rache?" His tone had gentled. "Did he not come to the point?"
"Yes, he did," she said, "and I am so bewildered. I know that I should be delighted, you see, but I can't be. If I marry him, I shall have to leave home. And I am not old enough to leave here, Algie. I would not know how to go on."
"You, Rache?" he said kindly. "You will be a success wherever you go, you know. I am confident of that."
"Oh, Algie," she said, turning a face of such unhappiness up to him that he gripped her hand tightly and leaned his head toward her, "I want you to offer for me. I have always thought we had an understanding. We have, have we not? But when I try to think about when we have spoken of it, I cannot remember a time. And then I think it is all in my imagination and you do not mean to offer for me at all. And I think I would die if you do not want me, Algie. I don't feel safe with anyone but you."
Her voice was thin and breathless, quite unlike her usual bright and happy prattle.
Algernon turned quite pale. He continued to grip her hand but said nothing for a moment. "Rache!" he said at last. "Don't upset yourself. Of course I am very fond of you. You know that, you little goose. And of course you are safe with me."
"But that is all?" She looked back at him distraught. "There is no understanding between us? It has all been in my imagination? You are not going to offer for me?"
"I don't think this is the time to talk about such a thing, Rache," he said, patting her hand, trying to soothe her. "You are upset about something and of course you turn to me. As you should. We have always been dear friends. But I think perhaps that is all I am to you, Rache. You are very young, and you have had great success this Season. When you have calmed down, I am sure you will find that you wish to be free to choose a husband far more dazzling than I am."
"No," she said. "No, it is not true, Algie. I love you. You are the very dearest person I know. And I am sure I will only ever be happy with you. I will make you happy too. You do love me, don't you?"
"Of course I love you," he said. "You have always been my dearest little Rache. You know that."
"Then marry me," she said, her face suddenly bright and eager again. "Marry me, Algie. Let us not wait any longer. I am nineteen and I have made my come-out. Marry me so that I may be with you all the time and be safe. I will make you happy, Algie. I swear it. It will be my life's work to make you happy. And we will have children. I will give you children."
He looked down into her eager face, his own still pale. "Let us wait just a little while before making anything official," he said. "We will keep all this to ourselves until summer is over and all your guests are gone, shall we? We can decide then what is best to do. In the meantime, you have houseguests to entertain, and you may well be glad of your freedom yet."
"And in the autumn we will be betrothed?" Rachel's face was lit up with happiness. "We will, Algie? And you will speak to Papa? Oh, I am so happy. I do love you so." She stopped in her tracks, flung her arms up around his neck, and hugged him so hard that he thought for one moment that she was trying to strangle him.
"Do have a care, Rache," he said, glancing back in some anxiety to be sure that the other couple was not yet in sight. He put his arms around her and hugged her briefly and comfortingly, his pale face hidden against her shoulder for a moment.
"Kiss me, Algie," she said suddenly, taking him by the lapels of his coat and looking at him with bright and urgent eyes. "Hold me and kiss me. Please."
"I say, Rache," he protested, his hands going to her waist. But he put his mouth to hers and kept it there for a few moments before lifting his head and glancing uneasily back the way they had come.
Mr. Holland and Celia were just appearing over a rise. Rachel waved her hand to them, took Algernon's arm again, and walked on with him. Soon she was talking away happily, much more her usual self again, an uneasy Algernon noticed.
They reached the Red Fox soon after and were regaled by the landlord's gossip until the other two joined them there. And Rachel was determinedly and loudly gay all through tea and then bore off Raymond Holland for the walk back home.
Lord Rivers tucked Celia's arm through his and held it comfortably against his side. "Will you be content with a sedate stroll home, Miss Barnes?" he asked with a smile. "Or would you prefer to stride along so that we may keep up with Rache and Holland?"
"The stroll by all means, my lord," Celia replied, "unless you have an appointment that necessitates our hurrying. Rachel has always been the same ever since I first knew her. She will never walk if it is possible to run. It was a good thing that Mr. Holland and I knew we were to take tea at the Red Fox, or we might have lost the two of you among the hills an hour ago."
Algernon relaxed somewhat as he matched his pace to that of his companion and listened to her quiet and intelligent conversation. Miss Barnes was not a particularly pretty young lady and her company was not especially exciting. But there was something very comfortable about her presence. He was glad of her company at that moment. She was the sort of person with whom one did not have to make any effort at conversation-not because she was dull, but because her conversation was easy and matched his own thoughts so nearly.
"Did you find yourself greatly fatigued yesterday?" he asked abruptly.
"Rather," she said. "We were actually glad of a quiet day at home. I of course took great delight in exploring the house."
"Rache was tired too?" he asked.
She smiled. "It is almost hard to believe, is it not?" she said. "I have never known quite such a bundle of energy as Rachel. But she was quite out of sorts yesterday."
"And today?" he asked.
She hesitated. "You have noticed it too?" she asked. "She seems almost dangerously high-spirited. And yet not happy." She frowned, her own words making no sense to her.
Algernon sighed. "I sometimes think Rache is more nymph than woman," he said. "There is no use in our worrying, Miss Barnes, and wondering what we can do to help her. I daresay she will be herself again by tomorrow."
"Yes," she said, "I do hope so."
"I thought I might ride over tomorrow and escort the two of you into the village to see if we can find David at home," he said casually, watching her from the corner of his eye. He was satisfied to see her color up and drop her eyes before agreeing calmly that that would be very pleasant.
Oakland looked more festive than Rachel remembered seeing it. There had been formal dinners there before, and even some balls. But there had been nothing on quite such a lavish scale as this. All the neighbors for miles around had been invited, but the big attraction, of course, was the presence at the house of a dozen guests, all freshly arrived from the Season in London. Under the circumstances there was not a single refusal of the invitations sent out. Only a select few had been invited to dinner, but there would be a respectable crowd at the ball, considering the fact that this was not London.
Rachel was delighted by the diversion. First there had been the day of everyone's arrival, her friends and some of Mama's and Papa's. Indeed, Mr. Jeremy Hart had been invited mainly because he was one of Algie's friends. It had been a day full of busy activity and animated conversation. It was amazing what news could accumulate in a week of not seeing one's friends. And the two days since had been no less active. Rachel had had no time at all for any of her usual activities in the country. She had had almost no time to herself and certainly no time to visit any of her friends among Papa's tenants. In fact, she had not seen any of them since before her journey to London.
Inevitably, though, there were the moments when she was alone. One had to retire to one's dressing room to change one's clothes at certain hours of the day, and one could not always take someone else with one. One had to retire to bed at some time during the night, and sleep could not always be relied upon to come as soon as one laid one's head on the pillow. In fact it rarely did so.
She tried to fill her mind with deliberate thoughts. She thought of Algie and how she loved him and felt comfortable with him. She thought of how they would be betrothed in the autumn and perhaps marry before the year ended. She thought about how she would have to remove only as far as Singleton Hall. It would be like living at home for the rest of her life.
She was very happy. So happy, in fact, that she had been unable to keep her feelings entirely to herself. She had told Celia that Algie was to make her a formal offer once the summer was over and that she was going to accept. She had told Celia that she loved him, a pointless announcement, of course. That truth must have been obvious to Celia since the beginning of the Season. Celia had been delighted. She had hugged and kissed her and promised to return to Oakland for the wedding, probably near Christmas.
And Rachel's thoughts frequently concentrated on Celia. Happily settled herself, she wanted her friend to be as fortunate. It was a shame that Celia was such a quiet girl. Very few people took the trouble to get to know her, and consequently few people knew what a very beautiful person Celia was. Rachel had hoped that her friend would attach some gentleman's interest during the Season, but there had been only Mr. Paige, who was doubtless too attached to his mother to pluck up the courage to offer for a wife. Rachel had been relieved that he did not offer.
There were possibilities among the houseguests. There was Sir Herbert Fanshawe, for example. And Mr. Hart was worth considering, for all that he was rather bookish and was reputed not to be able to see a hand in front of his face when he was not wearing his gold-rimmed spectacles. Rachel intended to see to it that these gentlemen had a chance to see Celia as she really was.
Mama had said on more than one occasion that David Gower was likely to become Celia's suitor. And so he succeeded in slipping into Rachel's thoughts after all. She could not keep him out. Indeed, no matter how busy she kept herself during the daytime or how fast she talked or how gaily she laughed, he was there all the time. And no matter how full of important matters she kept her thoughts when she was alone, no matter how careful the defenses she erected, he was there anyway. She carried David Gower around in her thoughts and in her feelings as surely as she carried around her own heart.
And it was entirely against her will that she did so. She did not want to think of him. She tried to convince herself that she hated him, that she was indifferent to him, that he mattered not at all to her. She avoided seeing him. When Algie rode over the day after their walk in order to take her and Celia to the vicarage to visit David, she used the arrival of the guests the following day as an excuse not to go. She had seen him at church, of course. She had kept her eyes on her lap, her psalter, her hymnbook. She had tried not even to listen to him, but there was unexpected power in his voice when he spoke, especially when he delivered his sermon. It would have been impossible not to listen. But she had divorced the sound of the vicar's voice from her knowledge of David Gower.
She blocked him from her life, from her heart, from her conscious thoughts, but he was there nevertheless. And sometimes, all too frequently in fact, he forced his way into her conscious mind, and there was nothing she could do but think of him until something happened to force him below the conscious level again.
It happened when she was getting ready for the grand dinner before the ball. She was ready far too early as a result of being too excited to rest as long as she should have during the afternoon. She had dismissed her maid and sat idly on the stool before her mirror, twirling her ivory fan in her hands, wondering if her silk gown was in too pale a blue after all. It looked almost white. She looked like a girl at the very beginning of her come-out Season again. It had seemed very delicate when she had chosen the fabric. Ice blue. Paler than his eyes.
David. She had made such a dreadful cake of herself at Singleton Hall. She had asked him to marry her. No, begged him to marry her. How could she have become so lost to all sense of propriety as to ask a man to marry her? She did recall half-guiltily that she had also asked Algie to marry her a few days later, but that was entirely different. Algie would have asked her eventually anyway. There had always been an understanding between them.
And David Gower had rejected her. When she had confronted him and told him to give her one reason why they might not marry, he had told her quite bluntly that he was not asking her. And she had continued to argue!
She hated him! No, that was no longer true, Rachel admitted. She had hated him for all of two days, blamed him entirely for her feeling of acute embarrassment and humiliation. She had hated him because only by doing so had she been able to cope with the raw hurt and bewilderment of his rejection.
And it had been far easier to cope during those two days than it was now. Now she had to face up to what had happened, acknowledge her own responsibility for the disaster, and reassess her feelings for David Gower. And she did not want to do so. It was far easier simply to hate.
She had thought she had her infatuation under control. It did not seem fair of fate to have thrown them together under just those circumstances. She had been sitting there quite innocently in the rose garden, pulled beyond herself by the beauty and peace, the very sublimity of the night, and then suddenly David had been there too. She still did not know what he had been doing there and why he had not still been with Vicar Ferney in the library. But he had been there, and somehow he had become all mixed up with her mood and her surroundings, with the unreality of it all.
What chance had she had? She had been in his arms, his mouth on hers, before she had even realized the danger. And once there, then there had been no chance at all to fight. She had been where she wanted to be. Not only that. She had been where she felt she belonged. Truth to tell, she had had no thought of fighting her feelings at that moment. She had only assumed that he must be feeling exactly as she felt, that he too would acknowledge that their love was right and inevitable. She had had no doubt whatsoever that they would marry.
How very naive she was to assume that when a man kissed one in that way he must love her and intend to make her his wife! She always assumed that she knew so much about life, being all of nineteen years old and having spent a whole Season in London. In reality she knew nothing. She was the veriest child. He did not love her, David had said. He had wanted to possess her, that was all. It had never occurred to Rachel that one could want without loving.
And David of all people. She had thought him a man of honor. A man of honor would not kiss a young lady in the way he had kissed her unless he had every intention of offering for her immediately after. He had pressed her body against his. His hands had touched her in places where they had no business to be. He had kissed her with open mouth-a type of kiss she had no known of before. And he had used his tongue! He had treated her as if she were a woman of loose virtue.
She hated him for that. Yes, she still did. She had admired him a great deal even apart from other feelings. And he had destroyed her respect for him. But she hated herself every bit as much. She had thrown herself at him with no pride at all. What if he had asked for more of their lovemaking? What if he had tried to take more than just a very unchaste kiss? Would she have given more? Would she have put up any struggle? She could not answer the question. She wanted to believe that, yes, of course, she would have stopped him if he had tried to take just one more liberty. But she could not honestly, beyond all doubt, say that she would have.
And if he had responded as she had expected, would she now be happily betrothed to him? Would she be planning to live the rest of her life with David Gower in the vicarage in Singleton? A vicar's wife? Was she mad?
What had happened was that she had mistaken a strong dose of physical attraction for love, and for one mad night she had been prepared to abandon everything that made her life recognizable for the sake of that attraction. She could not marry David. What she had felt for him had not really been love.
And so in the final analysis, Rachel thought, giving her fan an extra twirl and pulling a face at herself in the mirror, she was no better than David Gower. She did not love him either, but had merely wanted him for a few mad minutes in the rose garden. And if she were to be charitable and forgive herself, as she must if she were ever going to be able to live with herself again, then she must also forgive David. Perhaps his behavior had been no more calculatedly evil than her own had been.
If only she could just forget him. If only for one whole hour, or even for one whole minute of her day, she could forget him.
If only he were not coming to the dinner and the ball.
David Gower was not enjoying himself. He really had rnot wished to come, had felt a moment of sick dread, in fact, when he had first read his invitation. But he had decided long ago that in his vocation he would shirk no duties to his parishioners, no matter how undesirable they might be. At the time, he had had in mind duties like visiting a home where there was typhoid. He had not thought that attending a dinner and ball at the home of an earl would be the most difficult part of his job in more than a week of service. And part of his job it was. He did not attend from any personal inclination.
In the eight days since he had removed from Singleton Hall and gone to live in the vicarage, he had immersed himself in his work. He had visited every member of his parish-except the Earl of Edgeley-and had tried to get to know each as an individual. He had had long talks with elderly people and listened to the memories of bygone years in which they loved to indulge. He had discussed crops and enclosures and the attractions of the wages offered by the factories in the towns with the men. He had helped the women by lifting heavy pots from the fire and chopping firewood and holding babies and bouncing them on his knee. And he had sat in dusty yards talking with the children, examining their humble treasures, letting them play with his watch, telling them stories.
He had prepared his sermon with painstaking care for the previous week and had felt that his first Sunday services at Singleton Church were well-attended and well-received. He had taken comfort to a sick old cottager in the middle of one night and had left the old man peaceful and recovering after an hour of prayer. He had taken a basket of food to a large family when he had found out that the man of the house had gambled his money away at the alehouse. He had also not neglected to berate the man roundly for his irresponsibility. And he had laughed at his housekeeper when she loudly protested his action and assured her that bread and cheese would make him a perfectly adequate dinner. She might have the meat pasty that had escaped his notice when he was filling the basket.
It might have be a thoroughly happy week had not this ball at Edgeley's been looming on the horizon. Already, even after a mere eight days, David felt removed in experience from the sort of occasion of which he was to be a part. The prospect of a lavish banquet and an evening of gay music and chatter held out no allure for him. He would far prefer to sit at home with a book or even merely with his own thoughts. There was a great deal to think about-what to do for the children, for example, or for the elderly people.
Of course, David admitted to himself as he stood inside the ballroom and exchanged greetings with Mr. and Mrs. Price, whom he had visited just the day before, there was the other, far more powerful reason why he had not wanted to attend this ball. And it was the same reason that had been gnawing away at his happiness for the last eight days. The same as had prevented him from feeling total joy on his first Sunday at his new church.
Lady Rachel Palmer.
He looked at her now as she stood just inside the doors of the ballroom. She had come from the receiving line. The dancing was about to begin. She was simply sparkling with life and high spirits and was surrounded by the usual cluster of young men, some of whom he recognized as part of her court in London. Some of them were his parishioners. She was fanning herself and laughing and talking.
She was going to be betrothed to Algie. Miss Barnes had told him that as she sat next to him at dinner.
David had been feeling slightly sick ever since.
It would be the best possible outcome, of course. She loved Algie. He had seen that from the start. Nine evenings before, she had been struck with madness. The moonlight perhaps. The smell of the roses. The pensive mood he had unwittingly interrupted. There had been nothing more to that whole embrace and ensuing conversation for her. Miss Barnes's announcement and Lady Rachel's present exuberance proved that fact.
If only it meant nothing more to him! He was deeply ashamed of his behavior with her on that evening. Yet, shamed as he felt, loaded down as he was by a sense of his own sin and guilt, he could not put her from his mind.
The first set was forming, and David crossed the room to claim his dance with Celia Barnes. He had engaged her for two sets during the evening. And he was torn by indecision regarding her. He had sat next to her at dinner and had been struck again by her quiet good sense. He should start courting her in earnest. She would be a good wife to him, he sensed. She would keep his wayward thoughts from straying in directions in which they had no business to stray.
But was it right to pay his addresses to a pleasant and honest young woman merely in order to keep his own inclinations under control? Was it right to offer her a guilty heart? A heart that was not free?
His heart was not free. He was deeply and hopelessly in love with Lady Rachel. He had known that for certain as soon as he set eyes on her in the drawing room before dinner. And he had known it with even deeper certainty when Miss Barnes had confided her news concerning her friend and Algie. Would it not be almost an insult to turn to Celia Barnes under such circumstances?
The evening was to begin with a country dance. It was almost inevitable, David supposed, that he and his partner should join the same set as Algie and Lady Rachel. The two ladies had been standing close to each other when the sets began to form. David had to live through the torture of having to dance close to Rachel for all of twenty minutes, and even of having to clasp her hand for one turn every time the pattern was repeated. His eyes met hers once, and she smiled gaily back at him, her face flushed from the exertions of the dance, her eyes bright.
"David." Algernon prevented his cousin from escaping when the seemingly interminable dance came to an end. He had Rachel's arm tucked through his. "Do you want to hear the tragedy of the decade? It says volumes for Rachel's fortitude that she is still on her feet and still smiling." He was grinning teasingly down at her.
"Algie," she almost shrieked, "you would not dare! I have just come from the receiving line. That is the reason for it."
"Rache still has two empty spaces on her dance card," Algernon said. "Two, David. Not one, but two. Have you ever heard the like? Now, is it not one of your duties as vicar of this parish to alleviate the suffering of your parishioners? You really must insist on taking one of those dances off her hands, you know."
"Algie!" she said in an agony of embarrassment. "And I always thought you were my friend."
"It would be my pleasure," David said, wondering how the words could emerge from his mouth sounding quite so normal. "I may never have another such opportunity." He forced a grin to his face, though he noticed that she was by this time straightening her gloves and not looking at him at all. "May I?"
"You may have a dance after supper if you wish," she mumbled.
"And, Miss Barnes, if I have missed the chance to dance with you," Algernon said, "I shall be out of sorts for the rest of the evening. You were not in the ballroom when I was searching for you earlier."
"I too still have two free sets," Celia said quietly. "Do you wish for the waltz or the quadrille, my lord?"
"Oh, both, by all means," Algernon said.
Rachel laughed merrily. "This is an evening to remember," she said. "I do believe Algie is dancing every set. I never thought to live to see the day."
"Well, what do you expect when your papa has decided that there are not enough guests to make it wise to set up a card room?" Algernon grumbled. "One of the penalties of country living, Rache."
Algernon was feeling footsore by the time supper was at an end. It was not that he was normally an idle man. But cavorting around a ballroom floor in time to music, having to keep his mind on the necessity of not treading on his partner's toes and of not luring her to tread on his, was not exactly his idea of useful exercise. When he joined Celia for the quadrille, he suggested that they take a quiet turn on the balcony.
"Unless you will feel cheated if we do not dance, of course," he assured her.
"In truth, I would be glad of the fresh air, my lord," Celia admitted, "and of a temporary escape from all the noise of the music and voices."
"The noise is not much muted out here, is it?" Algernon observed a few minutes later as they strolled along the stone balcony that ran the length of the ballroom outside the French doors. "Let us step down into the garden. If you will trust to my escort, that is, ma'am."
He took her down onto the wide lawn that stretched as far as the stables to the west of the house. It was lit quite effectively by the candlelight spilling out through the open doors of the ballroom.
"Ah, that is better," Celia said. "Have you noticed how silence sounds quite loud to the ears when one has been in the midst of constant noise for a while? I can never understand those people who must be surrounded by noise at all times. Just as if they were afraid of silence."
"And so they are, I daresay," Algernon said. "Would it not be frightening to discover, for example, that one did not have even thoughts with which to fill the dreadful emptiness? Silence brings us very effectively face-to-face with ourselves, ma'am, and it is not always a pleasant experience to meet oneself."
"Perhaps it is because one knows that he cannot turn and walk away from himself if he does not like what he sees," Celia said, and they both laughed.
"I used to try to run from my own shadow when I was a lad," Algernon said. "I used to try to take it by surprise and loll against something quite lazily as if I had no intention of moving for an hour or more. Then I would leap away without any warning, hoping to catch my shadow napping and leave it relaxing against the wall. The longing to escape was especially strong when I saw myself in profile. I used to consider it most unfair that my father had been the one to sire me. My nose is inherited from him, you see."
Celia laughed. "Then I am very glad your father did sire you," she said. "You would look far less distinguished and handsome with just an ordinary nose, you know."
"Do I detect a compliment?" Algernon asked. "You may count on me to partner you in any dance at any ball you and I both attend, ma'am."
Celia stopped walking in order to sweep him a deep curtsy. "Thank you, my lord," she said. "What wonderful results a little flattery can accomplish!"
She came upright laughing. Algernon, about to offer his arm again, stopped, arrested. "Good Lord!" he said. "I had never noticed how pretty you are, Miss Barnes. You should laugh far more often."
Her smile faded instantly. She bit her lower lip and lowered her eyes.
Algernon thumped his forehead with one fist. "Lord!" he said. "What a thing to say. I meant it as a compliment, ma'am, but it did not sound quite like one, did it? Do please accept my apologies. Can't think what came over me. I should have been content to preserve that silence we were so glad of a moment ago."
"I am flattered," Celia said quietly, looking up seriously into his face. "No one has ever called me pretty. I am not, of course. But it is pleasant to be told so, and I know you meant what you said because you spoke in haste. It was no courtly compliment. Thank you."
"I say," Algernon said, offering his arm and resuming their stroll, "you are not an antidote, you know, Miss Barnes. I have seen since I first met you that you have great beauty of character. Some man is going to be fortunate to have you seeing to his welfare for a lifetime."
Celia laughed. "You have matrimony on your mind, my lord," she said, "and that is quite natural. Are you very happy? Rachel has told me that you are to become betrothed in the autumn."
Algernon was quiet for a moment. "Rache has told you that?" he said. "It is not at all settled, you know. I am not quite sure that by the autumn she will not have decided that she wants a more glittering marriage after all. But yes, she is very dear to me, you know. Always has been."
Neither seemed quite aware of the fact that they had stopped walking. He looked at her, saying nothing for a while.
"Well, I suppose we should stroll back to the house again," he said at last with a half-smile, "reluctant as I am to do so. I am afraid such social entertainments are not quite my cup of tea, especially when I am expected to dance. Thank you for walking with me, Miss Barnes. You are a peaceful companion. One can speak his thoughts with you without any effort at all to make elegant conversation. Now, does that sound like compliment or insult? I assure you I meant it as the highest praise."
"And so it was taken, my lord," Celia said, smiling up at him.
They both stood a few moments longer before he offered his arm and they moved in the direction of the ballroom.
rachel had promised the same set to david Gower. She had dreaded it all evening and in fact had a good excuse to avoid it altogether when the time came. Lord Morrison had been standing beside her as she rose from the chair on which she had seated herself to talk to one of the older ladies. Neither of them had noticed until they heard the loud tearing sound that he was standing on the hem of her gown. She was forced to withdraw to her room after listening to his exclamations of dismay and stammered words of apology. By the time her maid had made hasty repairs to the hem and she had returned downstairs, the orchestra had already started to play and the quadrille was in progress. She could see David standing at the opposite side of the room, close to the French doors, his hands clasped behind his back.
The temptation to leave him there and perhaps approach him later with an apology for having had to be absent during their dance was quite powerful. But she could not do so. He might already have seen her. Besides, of greater importance than that, she would find it more difficult to look him in the eye later and lie than to approach him now and dance the remainder of the set with him.
He smiled and held out a hand for hers as she approached. "I saw your mishap occur," he said. "I hope your gown has not been ruined. It is very pretty."
She would not succumb to the gentleness and charm of that smile, Rachel decided. She placed her hand in his and smiled dazzlingly. "It was a small matter," she said. "I am sorry to be late, sir. I think it is too late to join a set."
"Is it?" he said. "Shall we take a seat, then? Or walk on the balcony?"
Rachel hesitated. Taking a seat would mean sitting among the older women and chaperones. Their every word would be overheard. She would find such a situation embarrassing. "The walk, I think," she said, and took his proffered arm.
There was one other couple on the terrace, standing leaning against the stone balustrade and looking out into the garden. Mr. Robertson and Clara Higgins, Rachel saw.
"The evening is going well," David said. "You must be pleased, Lady Rachel. And very happy, I would guess."
"I always enjoy parties," Rachel said gaily. "They are my reason for living, I declare."
"Are they?" he asked gently. "You certainly shine in such a setting."
Silence fell between them. Rachel was feeling very conscious of her two acquaintances still standing there, not themselves talking. They would hear almost every word she exchanged with David if they continued to walk up and down. She drew to a halt as they reached the end of the balcony and leaned her arms along the balustrade. She looked out into the darkness and breathed in the smell of summer flowers.
"Have you settled in at the vicarage?" she asked as her companion stopped beside her. "Do you find that you have enough to occupy your time?"
He laughed softly. "The vicarage is a comfortable home," he said, "and I have Mrs. Saunders to fuss over me like a mother hen. And I find that there are not enough hours in the day to accomplish all I wish to do."
She looked up at him with raised eyebrows and then turned hastily away again. "What do you find to do?" she asked. "Both Algie and Papa have expressed surprise that you have not come visiting each day."
"I have been trying to become personally acquainted with each of my parishioners," he said. "I believe that I am succeeding, though it is a time-consuming task. Most old people especially love to talk, and the children too love to prattle and tell all their innermost secrets. Once one has penetrated their natural reserve, that is. Even the working men and women become surprisingly talkative once they know that one has not come merely for cakes and ale and social chatter or moralizing."
Rachel frowned into the darkness. "I would not have expected you to make all that effort," she said. "Vicar Ferney did not do it. I thought a vicar's duties consisted of sick-visiting, saying matins and evensong, and writing Sunday sermons."
"I am afraid I demand a great deal more of myself," he said with a laugh. "Being vicar here is not a job to me, you know, though of course I must work in order to earn my living. It is a way of life. My very life itself."
Rachel looked at him, forgetting for the moment both her distrust of the man and her embarrassment. "You mean you enjoy spending your time with the lower classes?" she asked. "It is most unusual to do so. You have been brought up to a different social class entirely."
His eyes were smiling. She must not look at his eyes, she told herself. She dropped her gaze to his mouth, curved at the corners. "I am a servant," he said. "And I can do no better than my Master. I remember explaining to you once before that Jesus spent by far the greater part of His time with the poor."
"That was different," Rachel said. "He grew up as one of them."
"That is true," he said. "But it makes no real difference. I have been happy during the past week, you see."
"Have you?" Rachel forgot her resolve and looked up into his eyes again. "And you are not happy here tonight, are you? And you were not comfortable in London."
"When I was younger," he said, "I was bitter in the knowledge that I would have to go out and earn my own way in the world. I thought I would be happy if I only had the money to give me an independence. I thought my restlessness was due to my unfortunate circumstances. And then I found that that was not true at all. My restlessness was due to the fact that I had found no meaning or useful purpose to my life. But I am one of the most fortunate of men. I have found both at a relatively early age."
"I have not," Rachel said, her eyes looking troubled as they gazed into his. She looked abruptly away again. "I should say I had not. I believe I am going to marry Algie soon, and then I shall have a reason for living. He will keep me safe."
David hesitated. "Algie is a good man," he said. "He will make you a kind husband."
"I know that!" Rachel turned on him, suddenly fierce. "I know he is a good man. Do you mean that I am not worthy of him? I know that too."
David winced as if she had slapped him. "I did not mean that at all," he said. "I… I wish for your happiness. I cannot forget what happened between us little more than a week ago, and my mind is weighted down by guilt."
"It need not be!" Rachel said tartly. "It was nonsense, sir. I have forgotten it already."
"No," he said quietly, "I think you have not. I hope you have not because forgetfulness of such an incident would denote a careless heart and an undeveloped conscience. But I hope you can forgive both yourself and me. What is most on my conscience is the fact that I lied to you. Yet we all have the right to know the truth in matters that concern us. I told you that when I embraced you I had been merely wanting…" He drew a somewhat unsteady breath. "I said that it had been a purely physical thing. It was not. It was more than that."
"What do you mean by 'more than that'?" Rachel's eyes were huge as she stared up at him.
"You are a beautiful and a vibrant woman," he said carefully, "and you add to both qualities an awareness of the mystery of life and a yearning to do more than merely exist. It is difficult not to be attracted to your character. And I would not wish to deny that attraction. Unfortunately, the circumstances under which we met that night invited a physical response, which was quite inappropriate to what I felt. Forgive me, please, and forgive yourself for what I am sure you must be seeing as indecorous and quite impulsive behavior. I am not at all the man you should be feeling any attraction for."
"I want to hate you," she whispered. "It is safer to hate you."
"No." His eyes smiled back into hers. "You do not hate me, I think. You are afraid merely, as I am, because we like and respect each other and because we understand each other. We both demand a great deal of life and of ourselves. We both demand meaning. But it is never good to hide from ourselves or to lie to ourselves, Rachel. Safe, perhaps, but not good. We have to risk loving. You and I are afraid to love each other because we might end up loving in the wrong way. But you love Algie, I believe, in the way a wife should love her husband. And I hope that soon I will have a wife whom I can love in the same way. You and I must not hate each other. We must love, and have faith that ours will be the love of deep friendship."
"David…" she whispered, and she closed her eyes and lowered her head. "David, I cannot take the risk. I cannot. It is far too late already."
"No, it is not," he said, laying a hand lightly over hers where it rested on the balustrade. "I have seen you and Algie together, Rachel. I have seen you tonight, sparkling when he is in your sight. You could not feign that response. You must trust your feelings for him. I am a latecomer, someone who came across you on two occasions when you were alone and relaxed and dreaming. I am only a part of your daydreams. In reality I am a dull, impoverished clergyman, my dear, who has pledged his life and all his energies to the poor. I am not the sort of man who could aspire to the hand of Lady Rachel Palmer."
Rachel said nothing. She kept her eyes tightly closed and her head lowered. His hand burned through the flesh of hers. He lifted his hand after a while and put it beneath her chin to lift her face.
"Oh, don't cry," he said, his voice suddenly distressed. "Don't cry, Rachel." He brushed at a tear with his thumb. "I cannot even take you into my arms to comfort you. We are in an appallingly public place. Rachel. Please."
Rachel swallowed, every nerve in her body tensed to try to control the humiliation of her tears. She wanted to cast herself into his arms and bury her face against his chest and howl out her misery. But there were light, noise, and music coming from the open French doors a few feet away. Someone might step through them at any moment. Her mind vaguely registered the fact that Mr. Robertson and Clara had left the balcony.
"I can't bear to see you cry," David said. "You were made for happiness and laughter. Don't cry." He had taken a linen handkerchief from his pocket and was dabbing gently at her cheeks.
Rachel laughed shakily. "What a goose I am," she said, taking the handkerchief from him and blotting her face resolutely. "You should have stayed away from me tonight, David, and let me continue avoiding you. I was quite happy doing so, you know. I don't like taking risks. And that was the theme of your sermon last Sunday, was it not? We have to risk giving of ourselves, you said. It is not enough to give alms or to give help or to give of our time and talents. We have to give ourselves. I don't think I can do it. I have to keep some of me for myself. Your idea is terrifying. But, there. Perhaps it is as well we have spoken this evening. It is embarrassing to avoid someone one has to meet frequently, is it not? We will not have to avoid each other now, will we? We will be friends?"
"Friends," he agreed. "And I am amazed that you heard any of my sermon. You did not raise your eyes from your psalter all through the service, I swear. Give me the handkerchief. Yes, I know it is wet, but I have a pocket, you see, and you do not. Now, let us talk about trivialities for a few minutes so that your eyes can recover before we have to return to the ballroom. What are you planning to do with your guests for the remainder of their stay?"
"Oh, I have lots of plans," Rachel said, depositing the crumpled handkerchief in his hand. "Picnics, walks, rides. No one will be bored, I can assure you. I shall be so busy enjoying myself that I shall not have a single spare moment in which to think."
David smiled. "I feel exhausted just looking at the energy in your face," he said, and they both laughed.
Only a few of the gentlemen were up when Rachel left the house the following morning. She had left them in the breakfast room without telling them that she was going out. She did not want company. Later perhaps, but not during the morning.
She should be still in bed like all the other ladies. She had not gone to bed until nearly dawn. But she had never been able to sleep until noon and waste the best part of the day. She had always loved the morning, she supposed because it was the least structured part of the day. Or at least it had been since she had left the schoolroom. There was very often an obligation to do something in the afternoon and evening, but one was usually free to do what one wished to do during the morning.
And Rachel had decided that it was time for her life to return to normal. Or as near normal as it was possible for it to be with a houseful of guests waiting to be entertained for the next couple of weeks. She had looked forward for so long, it seemed, to going to London and being presented at court and meeting other members of the ton that it was difficult now to adjust her mind to the fact that she had been there and done those things. And she was back home again, the same person she had been before.
Except that she was not the same person. She had met a large number of people, had been successful in her come-out, had been offered for by one of the most eligible bachelors in the country. She had come home still excited and intent on filling her days with social activity. She had jumped at the chance to have house-guests when Mama and Papa had suggested it to her. She was still feeling the restlessness that had driven her when she was in town. If she was less than happy, she had told herself all through the Season, it must be because she was not active enough. She must be happy. This was what life for a young lady of the ton was all about. Her life up until then had been childhood. Now she was a woman and must behave as a woman behaves.
Her conversation with David Gower the evening before, however, had changed her outlook somewhat. He was undoubtedly not a child. He was beginning his adult work, his life's work as he had described it, and he seemed to be a person who knew very well what he wanted of life. She had seen right from the start that he was a happy man. And he was happy working with the poor. In fact, he was happier with them than he was with people of his own class. He was not comfortable at ton events. She had seen that in London.
He did not think it necessary, then, to mix exclusively with his own class, to put behind him lesser activities that he enjoyed. In fact, he seemed to think it right to do as he did. If it was right for him, then why not for her? Why should she feel that it was no longer acceptable to spend time alone enjoying nature and her own thoughts? And why should she feel that it was immature to want to be with her friends? Her friends included Algie and several other members of the gentry in the neighborhood, as well as several of their houseguests. But they also included many of her father's tenants of all ages.
The Earl of Edgeley had always been a pious man. But his religion consisted of more than occupying his pew at church every Sunday and reading the Bible with his family at home. His religion also involved works of charity. His own people were well-looked-after. No one on the Edgeley estates ever starved or suffered in any material fashion. And Rachel had been brought up to visit the laborers and tenants, to take baskets of food when any was sick, to offer comfort to any who needed compassion.
The visits had become far more than duty to Rachel. All through her girlhood she had spent as much of her days wandering or riding from cottage to cottage as she had spent at Oakland or at the homes of the friends of her own class. She had always been a great favorite, her sunny nature and ready conversation making the tenants forget their usual awkwardness and shyness with the upper classes.
And Rachel had not seen any of them since before she went to London. There had been far more important things to do: houseguests to prepare for, the dinner and ball to dream about, a marquess's proposal to consider, a future marriage with Algie to plan for. There was no time for her childish friendships any longer.
But why not? she had thought that morning when she woke burning with restless energy. Why should she not go to see some of her friends? Why should doing so be of less importance than mixing with the friends who had come from London to be with her? She would go alone, of course. Anyone else, even perhaps Celia, would be impatient with such an activity. And with anyone else present she would be conscious of her dignity and unable to behave naturally.
She would go to see the Perkins family. Was Mr. Perkins' back injury still making it hard for him to work for his large family? And the family was getting larger. Mrs. Perkins was expecting their ninth child. Indeed, her time must be close already. And it was always interesting to talk to old Mrs. Perkins.
Soon after breakfast, then, long before most people were up at Oakland, Rachel was driving the gig down the rutted lane toward the Perkinses' cottage, a basket of food on the seat beside her. Mrs. Greene, the cook at Oakland, had grumbled at having to prepare the basket, but she had done so when Rachel had called her "Cookie," the old pet name, and had threatened to take over the kitchen to make some cakes herself if she might not take some of Mrs. Greene's. She had been favored with a good hard look in exchange for her threat, but she had got the cakes too.
Mrs. Perkins came to the doorway of the cottage as Rachel drove up to the gate with the gig, drying her hands on an apron, a tiny child clinging to her skirts. Four other children were playing in the dirt of the yard before the door.
Rachel climbed down from the gig and reached for the basket. "Hello, Mrs. Perkins," she called gaily, "and everyone. Is that Molly hiding there? You have not forgotten me, have you, Molly?"
The child whisked herself completely behind her mother's skirt.
Mrs. Perkins bobbed a curtsy, made awkward by her considerable bulk. "Good morning, my lady," she said. "You really shouldn't have troubled yourself. And you all busy at the house with guests."
"I felt like an outing this morning," Rachel said. "And almost everyone is still sleeping. Can you imagine such laziness?"
She accepted an invitation to step inside. She was always fascinated by the interior. The main room served as kitchen, dining room, and living room. It contained a stove, a table and chairs, and a dresser. All were set on a floor of pressed dirt. There was another room beyond the first, and a wooden ladder leading up to an attic beneath the thatch. The whole house would fit inside her bedchamber, Rachel was convinced.
Mr. Perkins, seated at the table, tried to rise hastily, failed, and sat down heavily again.
"My man is took bad today, my lady," Mrs. Perkins explained, dashing forward to pull back a chair for Rachel and dusting at it with her bare hand.
"Please don't trouble yourselves," Rachel said. "I merely came to see how you all were and to tell Molly about London."
Half a head, including one eye, appeared around Mrs. Perkins' skirt and ducked back again.
"Who is it?" a querulous voice called from the next room.
"It's Lady Rachel from the house, Ma," Mrs. Perkins called back.
"Hello, Mrs. Perkins," Rachel called. "I shall come to see you in just a moment. But I have just remembered something I brought from London for Molly."
A whole head appeared from behind Mrs. Perkins' skirt, its eyes wide.
Rachel took off her bonnet and pulled loose a ribbon that was threaded through the brim. "It is pretty, is it not?" she said to the child. "And very smooth. It is satin. Would you like to touch it?"
Soon both Molly and two older girls were smoothing their fingers along the ribbon while their mother hovered behind, anxious lest they crease or soil the costly trim.
"Would you like me to put it in your hair, Molly?" Rachel asked. "You have such pretty blond curls. I think the green will look prettier on you than on me."
"Oh, no, my lady," Mrs. Perkins protested. "It is too costly."
"Oh, please, may I?" Rachel begged with a laugh.
"Go and fetch the comb, then, Tess," Mrs. Perkins directed one of the older girls.
Rachel soon had the child sitting very still on her lap while she combed out the soft and tangled baby curls and threaded the ribbon through in such a way that it would not immediately fall out again.
"Oh, you do look pretty," she said, hugging the little girl when she was finished and laughing at the rather ludicrous effect of the wide ribbon in the baby hair. "Do you have a mirror so that you can see yourself?"
The child slid from her lap and ran into the adjoining room. The other two girls gazed wistfully at Rachel.
"The ribbon is yours now, Molly," Rachel said when the child returned with the mirror. "And I shall bring some tomorrow for Tess and Lil, shall I? What are your favorite colors?"
Rachel crossed the floor to look into the inner room. She smiled at the elderly woman propped up in bed there, where she had spent the last four years. Old Mrs. Perkins smiled back at her through a thousand wrinkles.
"As pretty as a picture," she said. "Such clothes, my lady. I'll wager everyone in London took you for a princess. And I bet all the gentlemen had eyes for no one else."
"The streets were quite congested wherever I went," Rachel said, "with all their carriages and horses."
The old lady laughed heartily. "I can just picture it," she said. "And you are not married to any one of them yet, my lady?"
"There were far too many to choose among, alas," Rachel said. "And what are you finding to do with yourself, Mrs. Perkins?"
"I have not had you to come and talk to me this long while," the old lady said. "But I keep talking myself. I give orders all the time." She chuckled. "Though nobody ever follows them. Not since I can't chase them with a broom anymore."
"Perhaps I can bring you some books," Rachel said.
Mrs. Perkins chuckled again. "Now, what would I be doing with books, my lady," she asked, "when no one in the house can read? No. I used to like to listen to the old vicar read from the Bible in church. There must be wonderful things in books."
"But I should have thought of it before," Rachel said eagerly. "I could read to you, Mrs. Perkins. Maybe not as well as the vicar, but enough to entertain you. Would you like me to?"
The old lady clapped her hands and laughed. "Now, that would be something," she said. "Lady Rachel coming to read to me. You run along and enjoy yourself, my lady, and don't worry your pretty head over the likes of me. I have had my life. Seven children, you know, and every one of them grew up healthy. Didn't lose a single one."
Rachel leaned forward eagerly from the stool on which she had seated herself. "But if I said I would enjoy it?" she said. "Would you let me read to you? I would enjoy it so much."
Mrs. Perkins patted Rachel's hand where it rested on the edge of her bed. "There," she said. "Life is not over yet. Fancy me going to have a real lady read to me from a real book. Well."
"Then it is settled," Rachel said, jumping to her feet. "Tomorrow morning I shall come. I have promised to bring the other little girls a length of ribbon each anyway. And I shall bring the Bible. Is there any story you particularly like?"
"Me?" Mrs. Perkins chuckled again. "No, my lady, you choose. But there was one. I always remember it because it was read the Sunday after my man and I were wed, and it seemed to suit so well. About that Ruth, it was, and her man's mother. N-Nell? Norma?"
"Naomi," Rachel said. "I shall find that story for you, Mrs. Perkins."
A few minutes later Rachel was bouncing her way back home over the rutted lane. She was humming to herself. Perhaps there really was something in what David had said. Jesus had always been happier with the poor than with the rich, he had said. And David too was happier with his humbler parishioners.
In fact, if she looked back on the days that had passed since they had left Oakland for London, she could not recall a morning she had spent more contentedly than this morning. Or an afternoon or evening for that matter. Though that was absurd, of course. It was just the sunshine and the birds' songs that had given her heart a lift and made her forget for the moment all the wonderful times she had had over the last few months.
Rachel began to sing.
David found that he had to make a deliberate effort to remind himself that the members of the two leading families of his parish were also part of his flock. It seemed like a shirking of his duty to be riding into Singleton Park on his way to join a picnic that Algie had organized. The afternoon was glorious after a cloudy, misty morning. The weather would have been ideal for visiting some of the more widely scattered cottages of his territory. However, attending the picnic was also work. He owed it to both Algie and the Earl of Edgeley to attend some of their social functions. And this one was special. It was in honor of Miss Barnes's birthday.
At least this time he did not approach the gathering with dread, David mused. He had seen Lady Rachel only once since the ball three nights before, at church on Sunday, but he did not feel the embarrassment at having to face her that he had felt on the other occasion. She had even looked at him a few times during church, a faint smile curving her lips the first time he met her eyes. But she had colored up when it had happened during his sermon, and had directed her eyes at her lap for the remainder of the service.
He was glad they had had a chance to talk privately at the ball. He felt that the air had been cleared between them even if the problem had not been solved. Incredible as it was, it seemed that she really did have an infatuation for him. She was afraid to risk loving him, she had said, afraid to trust that that love would become the love of friendship. It was far too late for that. Those had been her exact words, as far as he could recall them.
It was too late for him too, of course. He loved her in every way it was possible for a man to love. Including the physical. Thoughts of her were beginning to wake him in the middle of the night and set him to tossing and turning on his bed, unable to gain the oblivion of sleep again.
But he no longer felt burdened by a sense of sin. There was nothing impure in his love. He was doing nothing to encourage it. He was not deliberately dwelling on his feelings or on erotic images of Rachel. If his circumstances were different, or even possibly if his personal commitment did not hold him back from accepting his godmother's offer of help, he would consider his love for Rachel quite an honorable thing. He would perhaps be able to offer for her before her betrothal to Algie became official. As it was, he could never hope to marry her. Besides, she would soon be beyond the reach of any man except her betrothed.
But his feelings were not wrong. It was never wrong to love, he believed. He would not try to stop loving her. His life was devoted to love. And Rachel Palmer was eminently lovable. He must do what he had asked her to do. He must risk not putting up a wall between his feelings and her. And he must trust that in time the sexual desire would die and leave behind only deep affection and respeet.
He hoped that Rachel could do the same. But surely she could not love him as deeply as he loved her. Could she? What was there about him to love except a passable exterior? The women in his past had always assured him that he had a handsome face and physique. But what else was there for Rachel to love? He had renounced all the qualities that women of her class would find attractive.
The ladies and gentlemen had all gone down to the river, where the tables had been laid out, David was told by one of Algie's footmen when he knocked at the door. He had known he was late. He grinned to himself. Algie must be one of those people who believed that one's creature comforts were to be looked to even at a picnic. The tables had been laid, the footman had said. David had a flashing image of armies of servants carrying tables and chairs and elaborate dishes of food and bowls of punch across the lawn and through the trees for the half-mile that lay between the house and the river. He chuckled aloud at the thought.
He was quite right, he saw as he came within sight of the river. Two long tables covered with immaculate white cloths were set in the shade of the trees away from the grassy bank. Both were laden with fine dishes and attended by a bevy of liveried footmen. But then, David thought, being charitable to his cousin, Algie had organized this picnic with the fact in mind that he was to host a dozen or more visitors from the ton. A rustic setting with blankets and baskets of food would possibly give some of them the lasting impression that Algie was a bumpkin. And Algie could never live with that reputation.
David was still grinning as he walked out into the clearing and approached his host, who was looking quite immaculate enough for a London drawing room. David was almost surprised to note that Algie was not holding his gold-topped cane.
"Ah, David," Algernon said, somehow succeeding in twisting his head sufficiently to see his approach, despite his high shirt points. "Thought you weren't going to put in an appearance, dear boy. Glad to see you. You remember Lord Mountford?"
David bowed and greeted the older gentleman. "Indeed, yes," he said. "How do you do, my lord? Where is Miss Barnes, Algie? I must pay my respects to her on her birthday."
"Down by the river, talking to Miss Higgins and Miss Ames," Algernon said. He watched David walk toward her, nodding his head sagely. Yes, they would make a good match. And the girl was looking very fetching today in pale lemon. Suited her.
A few minutes later David was strolling along the bank of the river with Celia Barnes on his arm.
"I really did not wish for any fuss," she was telling him. "I did not even know that my birth date was known, and I planned to keep very quiet about it. Apparently Rachel remembered. I feel quite embarrassed. I don't think one-and-twenty is an age to be extremely proud of."
"Or ashamed of, surely," David said. "One's age is something over which one has no control whatsoever. Look at it this way, Miss Barnes. People love to have an excuse to celebrate. You have given everyone here that excuse by having the kind forethought to be born on this particular date."
"Ah, the voice of good sense," she said. "How do your parish duties go, Mr. Gower? Do tell me about them."
David described his days to her, omitting nothing of the long hours he spent traveling around his parish, the two nights when he had been called from home to a sickbed, the time spent at his desk reading and praying and preparing his sermons, the early mornings spent in the church saying matins for a handful of worshipers. He did nothing to glamorize his situation or to make the tasks seem less onerous than they were.
"I believe you must be quite dedicated to your work, sir," Celia said. "Do you not find yourself becoming overtired, working all hours of the day and night?"
"The truth is," he said, "that sometimes I feel guilty at how easy the work seems. When I sit talking to a lonely parishioner, for example, I am so happy to see his face light up with the joy of company that I feel as if I should be jumping up in order to get on to some real work. No, I have not suffered from undue fatigue yet. And how are you enjoying Oakland, ma'am? It is quite unusual, is it not, to have two such splendid mansions within three miles of each other?"
They talked on, their conversation easy, if somewhat dull. David found himself testing his feelings for Miss Barnes, wondering if an alliance between them would help dull the ache of an unattainable love.
Rachel was sitting on the bank of the river hugging her knees, even though Lady Mountford had just warned her that the grass was probably still damp and she would catch a chill. Mr. Holland sat on one side of her, Lord Morrison on the other. Mr. Hart stood behind them. Rachel was laughing merrily.
"Mr. Hart has declared that he would kneel down on the bank and stretch out a hand for me if I fell in," she said, "and then carry me back to the house. Mr. Holland would dive right into the water to save me. And what would you be prepared to do, my lord, if I should have the misfortune to tumble into the river?"
"Be assured, ma'am," Lord Morrison replied, "that I should remove my coat while Holland was in the water, allow Hart to haul you out, and then wrap you in a warm, dry coat and convey you to the house with all speed."
They all laughed. "And I would be left to soak unrewarded in the river," Mr. Holland said.
"Ah, but Mr. Hart would be there with a hand to help you out," Rachel reminded him, laughing.
Mr. Gower was walking with Celia, she could see. She felt guilty monopolizing the attention of three gentlemen. She just could not seem to avoid doing so. When they had driven over from Oakland, she had been careful to see that Celia shared her barouche with Sir Herbert Fanshawe and Mr. Hart. And she had tried very hard to curb her tongue so that she would not dominate the conversation. She had grabbed at Algie's arm as soon as they reached Singleton Hall so that she would walk with him to the river and Celia would have her choice of two escorts.
She had tried very hard. But somehow, when they finally began to make their way to the picnic site, she had found that Celia was on Algie's arm and she herself had an arm linked through both Sir Herbert's and Mr. Hart's. She must remember to scold Algie for being so shortsighted as to deprive Celia of other escorts. He was being kind, of course. But that was no way to find Celia a husband.
And now the worst had happened. Oh, she must not feel that way, Rachel thought guiltily. If she put aside her own feelings, she would have to admit that Celia and David Gower would make the perfect match. She should be delighted that they were together now, strolling away down the bank. She should not be feeling sick.
Rachel laughed gaily. "You would all have me full to bursting," she declared, looking around at her three escorts. "If each of you brings me a plate of food as you are offering to do, how am I to eat it all? I think I must solve the problem by throwing off my indolence, getting to my feet, and going to the tables myself. Mr. Hart, you may have the pleasure of helping me to my feet. Thank you, sir." She giggled and swept him a deep curtsy. "My lord, your arm, please?"
Celia and David Gower were also approaching the tables. Algernon intercepted them and drew Celia's arm through his.
"It is time you cut your birthday cake, Miss Barnes," he said, "before all of us have filled ourselves so full with other food that we have no room left."
"Oh, must I do that?" Celia asked, looking up at him in some alarm. "Cannot someone else cut the cake?"
"Once you have plunged in the knife, yes," Algernon said. "But you must make the first cut. One of the penalties of being the guest of honor, y'know."
"Oh," said Celia.
"Come," Algernon said. "You may hold on to my arm so that you do not collapse from the strain of so much public attention." He drew his shoulders back, lifted his chin, and viewed the world along the length of his nose.
Celia laughed. "I could not feel safer with a whole company of soldiers," she said. "Do you suppose it was His Grace of Wellington's nose that frightened the French into submission at Waterloo?"
Algernon threw back his head and barked with laughter. "What a novel theory," he said. "We will have to write a book on military strategy, ma'am. We must call it How to Nose Out Victory."
Celia laid a finger against her cheek and looked thoughtful. "A Comparative Study of the Facial Appendages of Victorious and Vanquished Generals Through History would be far more imposing," she said. "Or perhaps Great British Naval and Nasal Victories."
They were both convulsed with laughter when Lady Edgeley joined them to suggest that it was time for Celia to cut her birthday cake.
David had wandered over to the table when Algernon took Celia's arm. Rachel, turning abruptly from the food, her plate filled to her satisfaction, found herself face-to-face with him. She felt herself flush despite herself.
"Mr. Gower," she said, "how do you do? I have been wishing to speak with you."
His eyebrows rose as his eyes smiled down at her. "Have you?" he said. "Shall we take a stroll? The table seems somewhat popular at the moment."
"I shall wait for you to fill a plate," Rachel said, but he shook his head and they wandered back to the bank of the river and began to stroll beside it, in the opposite direction from that he had taken with Celia earlier.
"I do believe you are trying to edge me out of a job," David said when they were clear of the chatter of the largest group of guests. "When I arrived at the Perkinses' cottage yesterday afternoon, it was to find that my offerings were to take second place to your cakes."
"Oh." Rachel flashed him a smile. "That is what I wished to talk to you about. You were not hurt, were you?"
He grinned. "Not at all," he said. "The cake I was made to sample was quite delicious. And I must say that it is a good thing that the Perkinses have produced five sons and only three daughters. The cottage would have rivaled a London ball for color if there had been any more hair ribbons in evidence."
Rachel laughed outright. "Does not the little one look thoroughly comical in hers?" she said. "She is all hair ribbon and almost no hair. Mrs. Perkins said that she had to almost fight with the child to remove it when she went to bed the night before. It is so easy to delight such children. Three lengths of hair ribbon merely. One would have thought I had brought them a boxful of precious jewels."
"Oh, but you did," David said. "The ribbons are very precious to the girls. Even more so is the fact that they are a personal gift from Lady Rachel Palmer herself."
"Oh, nonsense," Rachel said. "There is nothing so very special about me."
"There you are wrong," he said. "You are the embodiment of beauty and grace and perfection to those children."
Rachel smiled and offered her plate to him. David shook his head.
"Old Mrs. Perkins was every bit as happy as the children," he said, his eyes smiling down at her as she bit into a lobster patty. "I would imagine that there has not been so much excitement in her life for many years, if ever. You had been there, Rachel, with a book. And you had read from it just for her, though everyone else crowded into the room too to listen. Where on earth did you get the inspiration to do something so wonderful? Do you fully realize what a glorious day you created for that old lady?"
"Oh, come," Rachel said. "You exaggerate. I merely read to her from the Bible."
"And she wept telling me about it," David said. "What did you read?"
"Ruth's decision to follow Naomi back to Judah," Rachel said. "It was the only story of the Bible she could remember. It was read at church a few days after her marriage, apparently, and it suited her feelings at the time."
"Ah, yes," David said. "It is one of the truly beautiful passages of the Old Testament: 'Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go.' "
Rachel joined him. " 'And where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.' "
They smiled at each other. Rachel found suddenly that she could eat no more.
"She said you will read to her again," David said gently. "Will you?"
"Yes," she said. "I think you were right. There is a great satisfaction in visiting the poorer people and bringing help where one can. Though the benefits do not work all one way. I do not pretend that my visits involve any self-sacrifice. These people are my friends. I gain more happiness from them than I give, I daresay."
His smile spread slowly from his eyes to his mouth. "Precisely!" he said. "Rachel, there are other old people too. I wonder if they would like to be read to as well. In their conversation they love to live in the past. Perhaps the world of the mind and the imagination becomes more attractive when the body becomes weary. Books would provide another activity for their minds."
"Those children," Rachel said, frowning. "They help with the household chores a great deal. I have always noticed that they have very little else to do. Life in all its richness does pass them by, does it not?"
"Perhaps you will have more inspiration," David said. "In fact, I have quite decided that you are the angel I have been praying for every day since I came here."
Rachel looked up at him to find his eyes twinkling. He grinned outright when she smiled.
"Oh," she said, "you are making fun of me. But I shall have the last laugh, you know, when I suddenly sprout wings."
"And a halo," he said. "You must not forget the halo."
"After all," Rachel said gaily, "who needs ribbons? I might as well give them all away. How many children are there in this parish, David? Female ones, I mean."
"Perhaps Sir Herbert is something of a spendthrift," Rachel said. "But I must admit, Algie, that I had not heard before now that he has an addiction to gambling. Is it really true? 'Addiction' is a very strong word, you know. Are you sure that he does not just indulge in it as a pastime because he is still young and unsettled?"
"It all amounts, to the same thing, Rache," Algernon said. "Only time will tell if he will grow out of it or not. In the meantime, it would be safer not to encourage an attachment between him and Miss Barnes. She deserves better. Besides, I have not noticed that either one of them has any partiality for the other."
"Hm." Rachel looked thoughtful. She and Algernon were strolling arm in arm through the trees on their way back from the river to the house. They were a few minutes behind all the other guests, Algernon having stayed to give instructions to the servants. "You may be right, Algie. But I have so set my heart on helping her find a husband before she goes back home again. And he is a pleasant enough man. What do you think of Mr. Hart, then?"
"That he enjoys sighing over you, Rache," he said, "and imagines himself doomed to a tragic fate because you will not take him seriously. The man is well-named."
"Oh, dear," Rachel said. "I really do not do anything to entice him, you know."
Algernon gave her a sidelong look. "Rache," he said, "ensnaring men is the breath of life to you when you have nothing better to do with your time."
"Oh," she said, pulling her hand from his arm and coloring up indignantly. "What a dreadful thing to say. Are you implying that I am a flirt, my lord?"
"No, I am not," Algernon said, looking at her along the length of his nose. "And what is this 'my lord' business all of a sudden?"
Indignation left Rachel as fast as it had come. "Oh, don't look at me in that ridiculous lordly manner, Algie," she said. "You know that it does not awe me in the least. It merely makes you look silly. But you do not really think I am a flirt, do you? I do not mean to be, you know. I cannot seem to help the fact that gentlemen gather around me wherever I go."
"It's just your nature, Rache," he said in a consolatory manner.
Rachel's eyes looked troubled. She had stopped walking and was gazing up at him. "Algie," she said, "all I really want is you, you know. I would not care if I never set eyes on another man as long as we could be married and live here together. I just want to make you happy. You do believe that, do you not? I do love you."
"Rache," he said, laying a hand on her shoulder and giving it a comradely squeeze, "I thought we had agreed not to talk like this while all your guests are here. And don't take to heart what I have been saying. I have been teasing you. You are quite perfect the way you are, you know."
"Am I?" Rachel gazed up at him forlornly. "I think you had better be very strict with me when we are married, Algie. Don't let me flirt. You must beat me if necessary."
Algernon looked searchingly at her, his face unsmiling. "Don't talk this way, Rache," he said. "And what is troubling you now? What has brought on all this self-castigation?"
She shrugged and stared numbly at him for a moment. "I don't know," she said. "Sometimes I think I should not have gone to London at all. I was happy before I went."
"And you are not happy now?" he asked.
"Yes," she said fiercely. "I am very happy, Algie, because I am back here again and we are going to be betrothed soon. We are, are we not? But I have learned some things about myself, you see, and I am not sure that I like myself a great deal."
Algernon looked searchingly into her eyes for a few moments before pulling her against him and wrapping his arms comfortingly around her. "What a little goose you are, Rache," he said. "I like you even if you don't, you know."
"I wanted these weeks to be happy for Celia," she said. "I wanted to make sure that at least one of the gentlemen would see what a gem she really is. And look what happened this afternoon. You stepped in to escort her to the river because you wished to be kind, and I ended up flirting with three of the eligible gentlemen down by the river." She moved away from him and straightened her bonnet.
"You are not responsible for Miss Barnes, Rache," Algernon said. "She is older than you are and quite capable of ordering her own life, as far as I can see. Certainly she shows good taste in displaying no interest in any of those guests you invited. Jeremy is a friend of mine, I own, but not suited to your friend, Rache. Not by any means. Now, David perhaps would be a good match for her. You might try to throw those two together rather more often."
"No!" Rachel said sharply. "Can you not see, Algie, that they are not suited at all? They are far too similar in temperament. They would never share so much as a laugh."
"You are probably right," he said. "Miss Barnes has quite a sense of humor when one gets to know her. Perhaps she would live rather too dull a life with David. She needs someone who can bring her out of her shell and set her to talking. Can't say I know anyone who would be just right for her. But then she is not our problem, Rache. Indeed, I don't believe we have any right to be plotting and scheming about her future."
"So you have noticed that Celia is not as dull as she somehow appears in public," Rachel said, smiling at him in delight. "I am so glad, Algie. I might have known that you would appreciate her. Now, if we could only find another man like you for her."
"I wish I could find someone for David," Algernon said. "I don't like the thought of his living alone at the vicarage. It's a tomb of a place. He wouldn't hear of living at Singleton Hall, of course. Pride, I suppose. But he must live a dull and lonely life, Rache."
"I think his devotion to his faith brings him quite sufficient happiness," Rachel said. "Perhaps he does not even feel the need of a wife."
"He needs someone who shares his strange vision of life," Algernon said. "Someone who is as careless as he of material comforts. And someone with high spirits to prevent his from sinking into gloom. I wouldn't think there is such a woman, is there, Rache? You are likely right. David will probably never marry."
They emerged finally from the trees onto the lawn to see that the carriages were assembled on the terrace ready to take the Oakland party back to the house.
David Gower, having handed Celia into one of the barouches, turned to smile at Rachel and Algernon.
Yes, perhaps it would be possible, Rachel thought, to risk loving him. Perhaps she could learn to admire and respect him only. Perhaps she could learn lessons for her own life and happiness from his devotion to living his faith. Perhaps she could learn to be his dear friend.
Perhaps if she kept working at it and working at it, this very physical ache of love and longing would finally be dulled.
rachel's days fell into a pattern much as they had done when she was in London. The mornings were hers in which to do almost as she pleased. Quite frequently Celia was up before noon, and usually some of the gentlemen were downstairs and looking for some activity. But generally the gentlemen found something to do together, riding out if the weather permitted, playing billiards or cards if it did not. And Celia preferred reading or writing letters to joining her friend outdoors. During the afternoons there was usually some group activity: a walk, a ride, a picnic, a drive to some place of interest. The evenings were occupied with music, charades, conversation, cards, and sometimes even dancing in the drawing room.
Time certainly did not drag by. Rachel could even convince herself that she was happy. And why should she not be? She was surrounded by friends and admirers. There was always someone with whom to talk. And there was Algernon, whom she saw every day. Her spirits always lifted when she saw him riding or walking across the fields from the direction of Singleton Hall or when he was announced. A house party certainly gave her every chance of continuing in the country the sort of life she had lived in town and the sort of life she had come to think of as right for a young lady. Yet here she had the chance too to do the sorts of things she had always enjoyed doing. And so some of the restless emptiness that had threatened her quiet moments in London did not come upon her so frequently.
The happiest part of her days, in fact, came to be the mornings, when she was free of the obligation to entertain. And as the days passed, she found more and more that she was drawn to the cottages of her father's tenants and laborers. She took food with her most of the time, but she did so only as an excuse to visit the children and the elderly people. She had never felt quite as comfortable in the few houses that had neither. She felt frivolous and useless when confronted solely with working people. She felt that she was keeping them from their work.
But she grew to love more than ever the older people, those whose working days were past. They were mostly lonely people with a great deal to say and almost no audience to whom to say it. Rachel became their audience as she had to a lesser extent before. Not just out of a sense of politeness or charity-she loved to hear their stories of the past, accounts of their almost heroic efforts to earn a living, to bring up a large family, and to maintain a dignity in the face of hardship. She always enjoyed especially their reminiscences of her grandparents and their family, who had lived at Oakland fairly frequently through the years.
Following her success with Mrs. Perkins, she suggested to several of these old people that she might read to them, and all were delighted at the notion of Lady Rachel Palmer reading from books just for them. She was soon in the habit of carrying around a Bible and a copy of The Pilgrim's Progress in the gig with her. Once she started reading the latter, she found she was committed to returning again and again so that she might continue reading the adventures of Christian on his way to the Celestial City.
She tried reading to the children and indeed found that they were enthralled at first and for short periods of time. She soon learned, though, that she could hold their attention much more easily by telling a story. She used the same book, The Pilgrim's Progress, and found that it could grip a child's imagination as deeply as it could an elderly person's.
The added attraction of these mornings was the hope of meeting David Gower, though Rachel tried not to admit the thought to herself. And finally he did come upon her one morning, sitting on the rather dusty grass outside one cottage telling four rapt children the adventures of Christian at Vanity Fair. She did not even see him approach and would not have realized he was standing behind her if the children had not begun giggling more than was normal at her exaggerated gestures and spirited imitations of the characters in the story. She looked behind her eventually and joined in the laughter.
"This particular rendition of the story is not for the ears of anyone past the age of twelve, sir," she said primly.
"A pity, Lady Rachel," he said with a grin. "It sounds vastly more entertaining than Mr. Bunyan's version. Do you realize that the picture of Vanity Fair you were creating resembles Bond Street to an uncanny degree?"
But his attention was caught before Rachel could answer, by a small child who was pulling persistently on the leg of his breeches.
"Reverend," the child said as soon as he looked down and smiled, "look." She held up a child's silk-lined basket, capable of holding perhaps two eggs.
David touched her tangled curls. "Very pretty, sweetheart," he said. "Are you going to help our mam with the carrying?"
"It's mine," she said, big-eyed.
"You brought the basket for Patty?" David asked later as he sat in the gig beside Rachel. She had offered to drive him back to the vicarage.
"It was just something I had as a child," she said. "It was of no earthly use to me now."
"You amaze me," he said, sitting sideways on the seat and watching her profile. "You are a very good and sensitive person, Rachel."
She did not immediately answer. "I don't think I am flattered," she said quietly then. "I do not believe you know me very well at all. You find it amazing that I can occasionally think of someone other than Rachel Palmer?"
"I did not mean my words to sound insulting," he said. "Pardon me. It is just that I knew you first in London, and you did there give the impression that your life was given over entirely to the love of gaiety and frivolity. And I don't believe I can be wholly blamed for forming that impression. You seem to go out of your way to hide the more serious and tender side of your nature."
"Perhaps both impressions of me are true," she said. "People are not simple beings, you know. You cannot hang a single label on a person and think that you know him. Even you are not as uncomplicated as you appear, are you? You seem all calm gentleness, all dedication to a calling that most gentlemen would find irksome in the extreme. But there is a more impulsive, more passionate David, is there not? I have seen him."
He sat looking at her for a whole minute before replying. "How have I come to upset you?" he asked. "I did not mean to, Rachel. I merely meant to comment on how touched I have been with your kindness to your father's people."
"You are condescending to me," she said. "How would you feel if I were to tell you how kind I think your treatment of your parishioners? You would think me presumptuous. It is your duty to behave so, you would say. Well, perhaps it is my duty too, David. I do not need to be patted on the back and told what a good girl I am being. I have not been visiting these people in order to look good or to feel pious. I have been going because they are my friends and I derive great enjoyment from being with them. You see, I am still just the pleasure-seeking Lady Rachel Palmer at heart. You were quite right, David. I would be entirely incapable of sharing your life."
"Rachel!" He leaned forward and put one hand firmly over hers. He eased the horse's ribbons out of her hands and drew the horse to a halt. He laid the ribbons down and placed one booted foot over them. "You are upset. I am truly sorry, and yet I do not know quite for what I apologize. I do not know how I have offended you."
Rachel looked down at her hands clenching and unclenching themselves in her lap. "I don't think it will work," she said. "Risking loving you, I mean. I can't do it, David."
"Can't love me?" he asked quietly.
"I can't take the risk," she corrected him. "I have tried. I have tried thinking of you as Algie's cousin, as the vicar here, my vicar. I have tried admiring you for the way you live your faith and the way you project it at church. I have tried to think of you as my friend, and I have genuinely wanted to cooperate with you on making life richer for the children and the elderly. I have tried."
"And?" he prompted at last. His voice was toneless.
She shook her head. "It is too late," she said. "It is too late, that is all. I can convince myself all the time when I do not see you. And then I see you, and I know that it is too late."
David said nothing. He continued to watch her profile, bent low now over her hands.
"I just want to know something," she said. "I must know. You said yourself that we must not set barriers between us. Let there be no barrier now. Tell me in what way you love me. If you love me at all."
"I want to lie," he said reluctantly at last. "It would be so much easier to lie. But it is never right to do so, is it? Pain is not thereby averted. I love you as you love me, Rachel. With the whole of my being."
Rachel closed her eyes for a moment before turning her head and looking at him. There were no tears, but her eyes were full of pain.
"And there is no hope for us, is there?" she asked. "Even if I were quite free, you would not marry me."
He shook his head. His face was very pale.
"Because I am Lady Rachel Palmer, daughter of the Earl of Edgeley, and a wealthy heiress. Because I am used to a life of luxury and frivolity. Because I would find it impossible to settle to life in a drab vicarage with a man who gives away freely the little substance that he has. Because ultimately I would be a millstone about his neck." Her voice was bitter.
"Yes," he said gently.
"Should not I be the one to make that decision?" she asked.
He shook his head. "No," he said.
"Because I am too foolish to make a wise choice?" she asked. "Because I need the wisdom of a man to make my decisions for me?"
"Because love is blind," he said. "Because your love for me seems at present to be the only thing that matters in life. Because I know that if I took you away to my chosen life, I would be taking you from the gaiety and the activities that make you the delightful person you are. I have to say no because I love you, Rachel."
"Oh, no," she said vehemently. "You are going against your own philosophy, David. I thought you believed that only love could see. I thought love said yes, not no. I thought love took risks." She laughed suddenly. "One thing I never expected to do during my lifetime was beg any man to marry me. And now I have done it twice. Just a short while ago I begged Algie. I thought I might be safe if I married him. I thought I might be safe from you."
She put a hand over her mouth and continued to stare at him. Tears welled into her eyes but were blinked away.
David put his hand over her wrist and stroked the back of her hand with his thumb. He said nothing for a while, until one tear spilled over. "I must leave here," he said. "I thought it would be the mark of a weak man to leave my position merely because of a personal problem. But for your sake I must leave, Rachel. You will forget me when I am gone, or at least you will be able to get on with your life."
"Hold me," she said. "I need to be held. Oh, please. Don't close your eyes like that and bite on your lip. I am so very weak. Oh." She spread both hands over her face and turned sharply away. "This is well-deserved punishment for all the flirting I have done. None of those men has ever meant a single thing to me. And now the only man who means more than everything is too honorable even to touch me."
She was in his arms then, his own holding her like iron bands to his heart until one hand came up to her chin and pulled roughly at the strings of her bonnet before casting it to the seat on the far side of her. He held her head against his coat and laid his cheek against the top of her head.
"Rachel," he said. "My sweet love. Oh, if I could only have foreseen what knowing you would do to us both. I would have stayed away, love. I would have accepted my godmother's offer to find me a post in London. If I had only known. I wanted to devote my life to bringing the love of God into the lives of my people. I wanted to touch hearts with love. And I have brought only pain and bitterness to the woman I love most in the world. Forgive me. Oh, God, forgive me."
"I have a large dowry, David," she said against his coat. "Papa will not oppose any marriage I make if he knows my heart is set upon it. And you have said Lady Wexford will help you find a position. We could go away from here and live in some comfort, and you could still work for the church. We could combine our two worlds, David. We could." She buried her face against him.
"No," he said. "We can never have a life together, Rachel. If you give up your way of life for me, you will be very unhappy. If I give up my way of life for you, I will be destroyed. I must go away, love. It is the only way. You will marry Algie and have children, and a few years from now you will remember this episode as a slightly sad youthful infatuation."
"And will you remember it that way?" She drew her head away from his shoulder and looked up into his eyes.
He framed her face with his hands and shook his head. "No," he said.
"Don't belittle my feelings then," she said, "just because I am a woman."
He bent his head and kissed her, his hands still cupping her face. Rachel rested her hands against his chest and abandoned herself to an embrace that was warm with deep love but empty of passion. Neither lost contact with reality for even a moment. Both were reluctant to withdraw and know themselves alone once more.
"I shall go away," David said again when he was looking down into her eyes, inches from his own. "Perhaps not as soon as I ought. Rufus and his family are coming to stay at the Hall. My brother, you know. Has Algie told you? I will not say anything while they are here. But after that I shall ask Algie to replace me. I shall be gone before you marry him."
"I love you," Rachel said. "There. Am I not incurably self-indulgent? I wanted to hear myself say it because I know I will never say it again. There will be a strangeness between us after this, will there not? An awkwardness again. The next time we meet we will find it difficult to look at each other. So good-bye, David, while I still have the courage to look you in the eye. I love you, and I believe I always will. And I believe you are a fool to refuse to take the risk of marrying me. You really do not know me. I am not at all the person you think me."
He smiled and finally withdrew his hands from her face. "You will be thanking God in future years for protecting you from such an indiscretion," he said. "Be happy, Rachel. That is what I wish for you more than anything in the world. You will be happy. You love Algie far more than you realize, I believe."
Rachel bent down to retrieve the ribbons from beneath his boot. "Will you think me very rude and ungracious if I ask you to walk from here?" she asked. "The village is not much farther than a mile, is it? I am as taut as a bow, David. I must be alone."
He jumped down into the roadway without another word, and Rachel none too gently set the horse into motion. She did not look back at the man who stood in the dust and watched her out of sight.
It was true that Viscount Cardwell and his wife and two young sons were coming to stay at Singleton Hall the following week. Lord Rivers brought the news to Oakland that same afternoon.
"He writes that he is coming because the children are now old enough to travel," Algernon explained to Lord and Lady Edgeley, "and because I have been pestering him ever since his marriage to visit me." He smiled at Rachel, who was sitting on a sofa flanked by Lord Morrison and Sir Herbert Fanshawe. "In reality, I think he wants to cast an eye on David to see how well he has settled to his new life. He will not take my word for it that his brother is a changed and a happy man."
"Indeed, we are most fortunate in your choice of vicar, Algernon," Lady Edgeley said. "What a delight it is to be able to sit through a Sunday sermon without having to fight the urge to nod off to sleep."
"Rufus has always felt guilty about having been born the elder," Algernon said. "He wanted David to accept an income from him, y'know, even though apparently he cannot afford such generosity. And he wanted David to go on the Grand Tour before settling down. It will be a good thing for him to come. He is bound to be reassured when he sees David for himself."
"I have only one fault to find with our new vicar," Lord Edgeley said. "He is altogether too generous. It is all very well to help the people of his parish, though I would far prefer him to come to me if he discovers a need among my tenants of which I am unaware. But I must take exception to his feeding and even giving money to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who knocks on his door."
"Does he do that?" Lord Mountford asked. "You should put a stop to it, Rivers. It only encourages vagrancy."
"He is doubtless giving away money to people who are far better off than he is," Lord Edgeley said. "And how does he know that he is not giving aid to a fugitive from justice?"
"I did tackle him on the subject a few days ago," Algernon said. "He just gave me that smile of his and said that it is better to give to some unworthies than not to give to some who are really in need."
"It is called risk," Rachel said. "Do you not remember the Gospel reading at church last Sunday and the sermon? 'Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.' That was the key verse, I believe." She flushed suddenly, realizing that all eyes were upon her.
"Lady Rachel has swallowed a Bible," Lord Morrison said languidly. "We should summon a physician at once. Dreadful malady, you know."
"Everyone in my home is encouraged to be familiar with the book," Lord Edgeley commented. "One has to be wary of taking the words too literally, though, Rachel. In the days of Jesus there were probably not nearly as many frauds and liars as there are today. But no truly sensitive person would deny the virtue of giving alms where they are deserved, I believe."
Rachel looked at her hands. It would be far better to hold her peace and allow her father to have the last word. "The Reverend Gower believes that one must risk loving everyone," she said, "even if that love is misplaced. Look at what happened to Matthew and Zacchaeus, Papa. Any sensible person would have said they were a poor risk."
"Gracious, child," Lady Edgeley said, a note of finality in her voice. "We are boring our guests quite shamelessly. Did you say that you came to invite all the young people to walk over to Singleton to take tea, Algernon? I think that would be a splendid idea. Do run along, everyone, while the sun is still shining. It looks as if clouds may settle in later."
One fact was perfectly clear to Rachel as she walked with Algernon ten minutes later. She would not be able to do what she had decided she must do. She had spent an agonized hour in her room after returning the gig to the stable before luncheon. But she had forgotten what David had said about the proposed visit of his brother. Now she must wait. Viscount Cardwell would not arrive for perhaps another week. He would probably stay as long.
He was coming on a long-overdue visit to Algie. He was coming to assure himself that his brother was happy and well-settled. And who was she to upset everyone's pleasure?
It must be done eventually, of course. Algie would have to be told that she could never marry him. He might draw the conclusion that David had something to do with her decision, especially when David asked to be relieved of the post he had so recently accepted and so wholeheartedly applied himself to. Soon there was going to be a great deal of upheaval and heartache. Soon. But not yet. She loved Algie too dearly to burden him with her second thoughts at this particular moment. And she loved David far too much to let him hear now of the change in Algie's betrothal plans and know himself responsible. She must wait.
And so she tripped along gaily at Algernon's side, twirling her parasol, chattering brightly to him, and agreeing with his suggestion that another ball, at Singleton this time, would not be at all amiss and would surely delight all the local gentry, who were quite unused to two such lavish entertainments within one month.
David spent a somewhat quieter day than Rachel. He refused luncheon, much to Mrs. Saunders' tongue-clucking disapproval, and shut himself inside his study to write some letters. He forced himself later to go out again, and punished himself by choosing to call upon the Misses Farraday, the parishioners whom he least liked to visit. He spent an hour with them, gently but firmly steering the conversation away from malicious gossip every few minutes, it seemed. He commended them upon the floral decorations in the church, a task that had been theirs for twenty years and more. And he succeeded somehow in leading their interest into a discussion of the flowers suitable for floral displays, and the appropriate seasons for each.
He spent the whole of the night inside the church, his knees on the cold stone floor, his elbows resting on the back of the front pew, his eyes on the altar and the crucifix above.
It had seemed simple, the dedication of his life to walking in the footsteps of his Lord. He had made that commitment more than two years before and had never for one moment regretted it. His life had been given purpose and direction. And he had been incredibly happy. When one gave over his life to service and the love of others, he had found, very little else was needed. All the ingredients for happiness and personal fulfillment were in such a life. He had never regretted the fashionable clothes, the money with which to gamble, seek out entertainments, buy baubles, purchase women. He had never regretted the protracted social life.
It had seemed an easy life he had chosen. Too easy, in fact. He had often thought that no one deserved to be quite so happy quite so easily. He had accepted the Gospel message in its entirety, not picking and choosing what could comfortably fit into his life as he had always done before and as he saw so many people do. He had accepted it, decided to live by it, and instantly found what all through his youth he had been restlessly searching for.
Now for the first time that life was not so easy. For the first time he was tempted. Tempted to put his love for a woman before his love of God. Tempted to give in to selfishness and take her away from her own natural world in order to set her up in his, where she would not be happy. Tempted to give up his own world and return to that in which position and possessions and ambition were the guiding principles.
He loved Rachel Palmer.
He wanted her. He was prepared to have her under almost any conditions.
Love could not be wrong. God is love. He loved Rachel. His love could not be a sin.
He could not live without her. He would be no good to his people anywhere if he labored on with a heart that had died within him. If he killed his love for Rachel, he would kill all love. He could not serve his God if he had no love in him.
And even if he could recover his own soul, even if he could continue to bring the love of God to his people, he had shattered the happiness of one human being. He had rejected and destroyed the gift of love that she had offered.
He loved the woman who was pledged to his cousin, even if only unofficially. That same cousin who had had enough faith in him to offer him this living. The cousin who trusted him and treated him with abundant generosity. He had held his cousin's intended and kissed her that very day. He had told her that he loved her. That he would always love her.
David agonized through the long night, fighting his own temptations, fighting despair, praying for guidance on an issue in which he found it impossible to distinguish right from wrong. The Gospels do not answer all questions, he had discovered for the first time in more than two years, and neither does one's conscience. He would have to take the further step of faith, reaching out for help even as he stepped out into the dark. He felt a sudden understanding of how Peter must have felt when he began to sink into the water on which he had been walking and the only power to save him was the hand of his Lord, just a little beyond his reach.
Morning brought with it a measure of peace, but no answers.
rachel drove over to singleton hall with the earl and countess the day after the arrival of Viscount Cardwell and his family. They took Celia with them in the barouche, though the rest of the houseguests decided that it would simply be too much if they all descended on the new arrivals to pay their respects on the same afternoon. Besides, all but the most energetic of them were glad to relax after a morning's vigorous ride through the hills.
Rachel was glad of Celia's company. Indeed, for the past week she had stayed close to her friend almost the whole time. She had even persuaded Celia to join her on her visits to her friends in the cottages. She could not give up those visits, she had found. Too many people had come to look forward to her frequent calls. Her reading to the elderly and storytelling to the children had been an unexpectedly great success.
Rachel admitted to herself that perhaps these friends of hers did not rely totally on her visits. Their very happiness would probably not be shattered if she ceased to appear. But the truth was that she had come to rely heavily on these daily chances to get away from the bustle and social activity of the house. Not that she was not enjoying the company of her guests and the gay round of entertainments that their presence made possible. But the house party seemed like a mere frill on her life. Nothing more. It was not real life itself. One's happiness, the substance of one's life, could not rest on such frivolity.
Real life was doing and giving and loving. And planning how one could give more and improve the quality of life for those less privileged than oneself. And learning that poverty was a relative state. It was not entirely a case of her being rich and having everything to give. In many ways her friends were richer than she and could give her gifts beyond price. The bunch of evil-smelling dandelions presented to her one morning by a scruffy, barefoot urchin, for example, was every bit as precious to her as the perfect rosebud that Mr. Hart had plucked from the formal gardens before the house and placed in her hand.
Only one thing marred her happiness. She was afraid everywhere she went that she would have to face David Gower again. And she did not believe that she had the strength to do so. She was not afraid of hating him. How could one hate David, a man so full of gentle love that it glowed from his whole person? It was one of the ironies of life that she had been hurt so deeply by a man whose whole life was devoted to the spreading of the Gospel of love.
No, her fear of meeting David had nothing to do with dislike or hatred. It was the strength of her own pride of which she was afraid. Or weakness rather. She was afraid that, given the chance, she would be begging him again, pleading with him to marry her. And she could not so humiliate herself again, even though she knew now beyond any real doubt that it would not be impossible for her to live as David's wife. She had been wrong when she had thought that such a life could not be for her. She had been wrong for several years, focusing all her energies on the hope of a come-out and a glamorous marriage, believing that in such a life she would find the missing part of herself, fill up the emptiness.
The emptiness had nothing to do with the absence of social activities. It had everything to do with the absence of commitment in her life. She had had no real dream, no goal in her life. Nothing really to live for. Nothing and no one on whom to focus her love. No real God.
And David did not know that she had found herself and that her life now had meaning and direction. He did not know that he had it in his power to make her life perfect. He thought he could only destroy her. And she could not tell him that he was wrong. At least, she corrected herself, she had told him, but he had not believed even enough to ask her what she meant. And she could do no more. She could not throw herself at his feet any more than she had done already.
And so she took Celia with her wherever she went. At least if she did meet him when Celia was with her, she would not be able to give in to the temptation to talk to him about personal matters. And indeed they did meet him one morning, or almost so. They had been on their way out of one cottage when they saw David approaching on foot. Rachel had scurried back inside again, claiming that she had left something behind. And she had held a puzzled Mrs. Powell in bright conversation for all of ten minutes until she could see through the window that David had raised his hat and taken his leave of Celia.
Rachel was relieved to find when they arrived at Singleton Hall that David was not there. She had been tense on the journey over, convinced that he would have come to be with his brother. Meeting Lord Cardwell gave her something of a pang. He resembled his brother to a certain degree. His face was thinner, his features sharper, and he was surely not as tall or as splendidly built as David. But he had the same dark hair and blue eyes. The viscountess was placid and rather pretty. Rachel set herself to talk with Lady Cardwell while her parents and Algie conversed with the viscount.
But even through the chatter Rachel noticed Celia's quietness. And she felt some guilt, as she seemed always to be doing these days. Was Celia disappointed to find that David was not present? Had Celia been delighted to spend ten minutes talking to him alone a few mornings before? Would David have seriously considered a match with Celia if it were not for her? His behavior in London had suggested such a possibility. Rachel did not know what Celia's thoughts and hopes on the matter might be. She had not had the courage to ask her.
Certainly there seemed no likelihood of any romance blossoming between her friend and any member of the house party. And Celia would be returning home in little more than a week's time to a life of dull loneliness.
"I would love to see your children," Rachel said suddenly, jumping to her feet and smiling brightly at Lady Cardwell. "May I?"
"Of course," Lady Cardwell said. "I would come with you, Rachel, but Algernon has promised to show me the rose garden and the hothouses. And after playing with the boys for most of the morning, I rather suspect that the flowers will be more peaceful companions."
"Are they in the nursery, Algie?" Rachel asked. "May I go up?"
"Yes, by all means, Rache," Algernon said, his expression rather blank for the moment. He had been deep in a conversation with Lord Edgeley when she spoke. "David is already up there," he added as the door was closing behind Rachel.
Lady Cardwell rose to her feet. "Do you have time to show me the flowers now, Algernon?" she asked. "Rufus has told me that your hothouses are quite famous. I have always wished to visit, but I am afraid I have been rather busy since our marriage, producing sons."
"Certainly, Madeline," Algernon said. "Perhaps the other ladies would care to join us. Lady Edgeley? Miss Barnes?"
Lady Edgeley declined the invitation on the grounds that the wind was chill and she feared she had caught cold during a walk the day before. Celia rose to her feet.
Lady Cardwell chose to walk without support when they left the house. Celia accepted Algernon's arm and listened quietly to his explanations as they walked through the hothouses examining all the exotic plants that grew there. Lord Rivers was very knowledgeable about them, she found, although it was his parents who had had the glass structure erected and who had collected the plants.
"The rose garden was my mother's real life work, though," Algernon explained as he shut the door of the last hothouse behind them. "It has several different varieties. If you wish to spend another half-hour outdoors, Madeline, I shall name each individual rose to you."
Lady Cardwell laughed. "Perhaps tomorrow, Algernon," she said. "I did not bring a shawl with me, and I must confess to having goose bumps on my arms after being inside the hothouses all this time. Besides, I do not believe my mind can cope with any more new information at present. Let us go inside."
"I'll wager Miss Barnes is made of sterner stuff," Algernon said. "Would you care to take a turn in the rose garden with me, ma'am, if I promise not to bore you with the names of a few dozen rose plants?"
"I should be delighted, my lord," Celia said, matching his light tone, "even if I must be subjected to a horticultural lecture."
They turned to walk beneath the trellised arch that formed the entryway into the rose garden while Lady Cardwell laughed and continued on her way to the house.
"I always feel almost apologetic about having such a very feminine part to my garden when this is really just a bachelor establishment," Algernon said. "But I like it anyway. It reminds me of my mother."
"Only a weak man has to shy away from any interest that might suggest femininity," Celia said. "You are not a weak man, my lord. What was your mother like?"
"A little like you in a way," Algernon said. "Oh, not in looks. My mother was small and quite dark. But she was quiet and self-possessed, like you. One always felt that one could rely on her entirely to soothe away troubles and help one cope with problems."
"And do you see me irt that way?" Celia asked.
"Yes," he said with a smile. "Am I right? I cannot imagine you in a panic. And I cannot imagine you with hartshorn and vinaigrette and laudanum drops and all the other paraphernalia without which many ladies would not be able to live through a single day. Have you ever had a fit of the vapors, Miss Barnes?"
"No, I am afraid I have not," she admitted somewhat ruefully. "I am afraid I am a rather dull person, my lord."
"Dull?" he said, coming to a stop on the path and looking full at her. "You, Miss Barnes? Absolutely not, I assure you. You are quiet, yes, and dignified. I suppose those qualities do not make a young lady shine in a London ballroom, but they are invaluable assets to a man's family in their country home. Any man would be fortunate indeed to have such a wife as you."
"Oh!" Celia's lips formed the word, though no sound came from her as she stared back at Algernon.
He seemed to realize what he had said only when the words were out of his mouth. He flushed slightly. "You see?" he said with an awkward smile. "I am your sincere admirer, ma'am. Come and see this peach-colored rose. You see how I am using layman's words so that you will not be weighed down with Latin names?"
"And this layman will be forever grateful," Celia said. "I shall remember, you see, that I have seen a magnificent peach-colored rose in your garden, whereas I should be racking my brains in vain to recall the five-syllable Latin name for it. What a very beautiful color it is."
"Here," Algernon said impulsively. He leaned forward and wrestled briefly with the stem of a bud before breaking it off and turning back to Celia. "It will complement your cream-colored dress. In your hair, I think. May I?"
Celia stood very still as he threaded the stem through the hair above her left ear. She had not worn her bonnet into the garden. She could feel his breath on her cheek.
"There, very becoming," he said, looking down into her face and grinning. Then his expression became more gentle. "Do you really think of yourself as dull?" he. asked "Why?"
Celia resisted the urge to take a step back, away from the powerful magnetism of his closeness. "I do not suffer from self-pity," she said. "I have quite calmly accepted the fact that I have none of the qualities that attract most people. I am not beautiful or particularly accomplished and I have no wealth or important connections. And I find it difficult to communicate with more than one person at a time. Even then, I have no bright and interesting conversation. But this is an embarrassing confession, my lord. I am not looking for your pity. Or for your reassurances either. I have accepted what I am and I am happy with my life."
"Are you?" he asked. He still had not moved away from her. "Do you not want what most other ladies want, Celia? Do you not want a husband and a family? A home of your own?"
Celia swallowed. "Of course I do," she said. "But I have only just had my twenty-first birthday, my lord. I do not consider myself too firmly established on the shelf yet."
He nodded. "Pardon me," he said. "I gather that young ladies do not like to talk about such matters. I would like to see you happy. It says a great deal for the male mentality, does it not, that the featherbrained chits that litter fashionable drawing rooms are snatched up during their first Season? Probably to the lifelong regret of those who do the snatching."
Celia's smile was somewhat stiff. "I would imagine a man would regret snatching up an antidote too," she said. "At least the featherbrains are pleasant to look at for a time."
Algernon laughed and then sobered. "Now, you have never been seeing yourself as an antidote, have you?" he asked, frowning down at her. "That is utter nonsense, as I told you once before. I cannot allow that, you know, Celia. Why, an antidote would look quite grotesque with a peach rose in her hair, while you look lovely."
Celia laughed and looked down. But his hand beneath her chin forced her face up again. "If I were not a gentleman," Algernon said, "I would show you how much of an antidote you are, indeed. In fact..." He lowered his head and kissed her firmly and lingeringly on the lips. "There. You see? You are very kissable. Didn't feel like an antidote at all. Not that I would know what an antidote would feel like. I've never kissed one. But she wouldn't feel like that. Good Lord, have I offended you?"
Celia had paled considerably. She pushed at his hand now, turned abruptly from him, and began to move away. Algernon caught at her arm. "My apologies, ma'am," he said. "I have insulted you. Can't think what came over me. I am not in the habit of kissing females in that way. Good Lord, I have never… I truly did not mean to insult you. Please forgive me. I just seem to forget when I am with you that you are an acquaintance merely. I… Please allow me to escort you back to the house."
Celia looked back at him, biting her lip. "I am sorry," she said. "It was nothing. I was embarrassed, that is all. No one has ever kissed me before even as a jest. Yes, please, I would like to return to the house. The breeze is quite chilly."
She took his offered arm and they walked in an awkward silence back to the house. Algernon stopped before they went inside. "Can that episode be forgotten?" he asked. "I like and respect you, Miss Barnes, and value your friendship. Will you say you forgive me?"
Celia smiled up at him and placed her own hand in his outstretched one. "There is nothing to forgive," she said. "Thank you for the things you said. And thank you for the rose. Yes, my lord, I would like to think of you as my friend."
They shook hands and smiled at each other before walking up the marble steps to the door.
An hour earlier Rachel had run lightly up the stairs and along to the nursery. She wanted to see these children, aged three and one. She grinned at herself as she knocked softly on the door and opened it. She would far prefer to spend the next hour playing with David's nephews than to look at flowers with Lady Cardwell and Algie or converse in the drawing room with the viscount.
She looked around her with a smile, preparing to introduce herself to the children's nurse. She found herself smiling instead at David Gower. He was standing at the opposite side of the room by one of the long windows. He held a baby in his arms. An older child stood on the window seat before him looking out through the window.
"Oh," Rachel said foolishly, "I am sorry. I did not know you were here."
"Hello, Rachel," David said. His eyes were smiling at her in that way that made her feel weak at the knees. "Do come inside. Did you come to meet my nephews? I am very proud of them, you know, and quite delighted to have someone to whom to show them off. It is more than six months since I saw them last. This little one, in particular, was a very small baby then."
"Where is their nurse?" Rachel asked.
He grinned. "I sent her to have tea with the housekeeper," he said. "Little Simon here was running her off her feet. Once one sets his legs to the floor, he believes that they should be in continuous motion. And he moves at a run, destroying everything in his path. I have enabled myself to have something of a rest by the simple expedient of picking him up. Right, cherub?" He pinched the stomach of the baby, who chuckled with delight.
"They are lovely," Rachel said. "The older one looks like your brother and you." She smiled at the little boy, who had turned from the window to stare at her. She held out a hand. "May I present myself? I am Lady Rachel Palmer. I do not know your name, sir."
The boy placed a small hand in hers. "Rufus Gower, ma'am," he said, bobbing his head in a swift bow.
"Ah," she said. "You share your papa's name. I am pleased to meet you, sir." She curtsied.
"When I sent the nurse away twenty minutes ago," David said, "it was with the promise that I would try to get these boys to bed. They usually sleep for an hour immediately after luncheon, but the upheaval of the journey for more than two days and the strange house at the end of it all has upset their routine. I had them almost persuaded when you arrived. Shall we try, boys? Lady Rachel is an expert storyteller. If you go to bed immediately and settle down quietly, perhaps she can be persuaded to tell you a story."
Rachel looked at him in alarm, to find that his eyes were twinkling. "Well, I know some of Aesop's fables," she said.
"Uncle David, carry me," Rufus begged, directing large blue eyes his uncle's way.
"Uncle David's arms are already full," Rachel said. "Will I do?"
"Here," David said, "you take Simon. But please do not set his feet anywhere close to the floor or we will spend another twenty minutes chasing him."
The baby's arms closed around her neck. His cheek as it brushed hers was hot, she felt. He was clearly tired and holding himself awake by sheer willpower.
The scene in the children's bedchamber seemed an incredibly domestic one to Rachel. She tucked the baby into one bed while David did the same with the older child in the other. The baby immediately gathered the silk border of the blanket into his fist, put a thumb in his mouth, and addressed himself to sleep. Rufus watched her wide-eyed as she sat on the edge of his bed and told him fables. It was not until she was halfway through the third one that his eyelids began to droop. She finished the story, kissed his forehead, and rose to leave. Simon was already asleep. David was standing at the foot of the beds.
"Have you always loved children?" he asked Rachel as they stepped back out into the nursery and he closed the door behind them. "You certainly have a gift for holding their attention."
"Yes, I have always enjoyed playing with children," she admitted. "Papa says it is because I have never grown up myself. I think the local children should be taught to read, David. Do you think I would be able to teach them? And would there be any real point? I mean, I know there would be a point, but would their parents and everyone else see that? I am not at all sure. I have never really thought about it before." She was staring eagerly at him, the old Rachel he remembered from London.
"I suppose you can only ask," he said. "But yes, if you really wished to do that, Rachel, I think you would do it successfully. You have a great deal of energy and enthusiasm. It would be a great commitment of time, though. Are you sure you will have the time to spare?"
"Oh, yes." Rachel gazed earnestly back. "I will have a great deal of time. My whole life." She flushed suddenly.
He smiled and changed the subject. "I should have come downstairs when I saw your barouche arrive earlier," he said. "Did no one think to tell you I was here?"
"No," Rachel said. "I would not have come up had I known. You must stay until the nurse returns, must you not? I shall go back downstairs."
"Must you?" he asked with a smile. "Come and sit with me by the window for a while. It is a great shame that there must be an awkwardness between us, Rachel. We could be very dear friends, could we not, if there were not the other to make it painful to be in each other's presence?"
Rachel came and sat at one end of the long window seat. He sat at the other. "Yes," she said, "I believe we could." Her eyes rested on his face. She smiled.
"Why do you do what you do?" he asked. "Why do you spend your mornings with the poor?"
"For very selfish reasons," she said. "It makes me happy. The mornings are the happiest time of my days."
"It is not because of me?" he asked. "It is not that I have made you feel you ought?"
"You reminded me perhaps," she said, "of the way things were before my attention was completely taken up with London and the Season. And I think I wanted to win your respect, and even admiration. But it is not just for you, David. Not by any means. I shall continue after you are gone. All my life."
"Do you do it at all for God?" he asked curiously. "I do not know much about the state of your faith, Rachel. I know that you know a great deal of the Bible, of course."
Rachel was silent for several moments, staring across at him. "I am not quite sure," she said. "Religion seems so restrictive. It makes people sober and unhappy. It is full of things one must not do. I want to be happy. I want joy in my life. I want to run and dance and be free. I don't think I am a very good member of your flock, David."
His eyes smiled deeply into hers and his mouth was curved up at the corners. "Oh, I think that perhaps you are far closer to God than many of my other sheep, Rachel," he said. "The type of religion you fear is best suited to those who wish to create their own God. It is a human tendency to stress the negative, to emphasize what one should not do rather than what one should. It is not God's way. God gives us only two commandments: to love Him and to love one another. They are very positive commands. And you are beginning to live them already. If you will learn to accept that it is what God wants you to do, I think you will be able to sing and dance and be incredibly happy. You should be happy, Rachel. You were made for joy."
"My own private sermon," she said. "And it is not even Sunday."
"Pardon me," he said. "I did not mean to preach. It is just that I feel an enormous responsibility for you. Not just the responsibility of vicar to parishioner, but that of lover to beloved. I know I have hurt you. And I believe that the hurt I have inflicted may be deep enough to wound you for a lifetime. But you need not be unhappy, Rachel. That seems like a paradox, does it not? But I believe it. You can be happy if you realize that you need not depend on a poor weak human for your joy. I could bring you only unhappiness ultimately, you know."
Rachel smiled rather wearily and stared out through the window.
"With Algie you will live the life you are suited to," he said. "With religious faith you will also be able to live a rich life. I will be quite superfluous to your life, you see."
"David." Rachel turned back to look full at him. "Whom are you trying to persuade? Do you not think I have sense enough to have told myself all these things and more in the last week? I have already adjusted my mind to the type of future I am facing. And I am not going to marry Algie, you know."
His face paled noticeably. "Not marry Algie?" he said. "But your betrothal has been planned, Rachel. And you love him."
"Yes, I do," she said. "Far too dearly to use him as a refuge from a bruised heart. He deserves to have all of the woman he will marry. I could offer him only a part of myself."
David closed his eyes and drew a deep breath. "Does he know?" he asked."
"No," she said. "I do not wish to broach the topic while your brother is here and while our guests are still at Oakland. When they have all left I shall tell him. You see, I can be as courageous as you, David."
David got to his feet and stood with his back to the window. "I am sorry," he said finally. "I am truly, sorry, Rachel."
"You need not be," she said. "I think you have saved both Algie and me from a bad marriage. It is only recently, you see, that I have realized that we do not love each other as a husband and wife should. Perhaps Algie already knows that. I am not sure. He has been the one to advise caution, to insist that we wait until autumn before making our betrothal official. But I have now realized it. I admire Algie, and even love him, for his placid good nature. I suppose I have always felt that I would take on some of that nature if I married him. I thought I would be safe with Algie. But of course that was nonsense. I have grown up a great deal in the past few weeks. I would still be me if I married Algie a thousand times. I would still be restless and frightened."
"Frightened?" He turned back to her with a frown.
"Yes," she said. "I have always been frightened by life. It is so vast, so without form or logic, so..." She let out her breath in a rush. "So meaningless. I have always tried to drown out the silence with the sound of my own voice and laughter and fill in the vast empty spaces with movement and gaiety. Life terrifies me."
David was on his knees in front of her suddenly, both her hands in his. "Rachel," he said earnestly, "it must not. Oh, you have so much to give: your gaiety and sunny nature, your gentleness and compassion, your energy. There is meaning in life, dear, even in the bleak and painful moments. There is a pattern that we will see clearly as we get older. Already I can see purpose in some of the experiences in my past. I can see purpose, for example, in the existence of those two little boys in the next room, though when they were born they distanced me further from hopes of a title and a fortune. There is a meaning to your life too. You will see it one day and be glad of it. Just have faith, Rachel."
He lifted her hands one at a time and pressed his lips to her palms. "Even this," he said. "There is even meaning in this. We will understand one day why we had to love and why our love had to shatter both of our plans for the future. I believe we will even admit that it was best it happened exactly the way it has. Pain and all. Perhaps then we will each be able to love the memory of the other without any of the pain and guilt and confusion that make our feelings almost unbearable at the moment."
"Perhaps you are right, David." Rachel lifted her hands to smooth back the hair at the sides of his head. "I know already that I will never be sorry that I met and loved you. I believe I am the richer for knowing you. You have helped me to face myself and my own fears."
She was smiling into his eyes, her hands still in his hair, his resting on her knees, when the children's nurse bustled back into the nursery. David rose and turned to her with a smile.
"Task accomplished, Mrs. Jones," he said. "Both children are sleeping soundly. Have you met Lady Rachel Palmer?"
Five minutes later they were walking together down the staircase toward the salon, both feeling strangely comforted after almost a week of studiously avoiding all meetings with each other. Their pain over the fact that their love could know no satisfactory outcome had almost blinded them to the fact that they had also grown to be close and dear friends.
The arrival of Viscount Cardwell breathed new life into the final week of the house party at Oakland. Every day the members of the two households met for various activities. There were walks, rides, picnics, dinners, card parties, musical evenings. All the entertainments were to culminate in the dinner and ball at Singleton Hall two days before all the guests, including Lord and Lady Cardwell, were scheduled to leave. Even Celia had expressed her intention of returning home on that day, though Rachel had urged her to stay longer.
David attended rather more of the week's activities than he would normally have done. His brother was to stay with Algernon for only little more than a week altogether, and he seldom saw his brother or the children, who would grow up so quickly. He wanted to spend as much time as he was able with them while they were close by.
And so he saw Rachel almost daily. They did not often seek out each other's company, but the awkwardness that had kept them apart after their morning encounter in the gig had largely disappeared. They could be in the same room with each other without dreading a chance meeting of their eyes. Indeed, several times they spent some time in conversation together. It was on one such occasion that she told him with a giggle about her loss of an admirer.
"Mr. Hart confided to me yesterday that he has won Patricia Lacey's consent to speak with her papa when they both remove to Brighton," she said. "Does he not seem to have got matters the wrong way around, David? And he thanked me profusely for inviting him to this house party, as it gave him the opportunity to win her affection. How mortifying. Ail the time he appeared to be languishing after me, he was fixing his interest with the very demure Patricia." She laughed gaily again.
On another occasion she told him of the progress of her plans to teach some of the children of the estate to read. "I would never have time to go from house to house teaching a handful of children at a time," she said."There would need to be ten of me. I need someplace where I can gather them all together. A school, no less. But where, David? I thought I might use a room at Oakland, but the children might be shy and uncomfortable in such surroundings. Besides, Mama and Papa think I must have windmills in my head to even consider the idea. I am sure they would not agree to their home becoming a school."
David had not been able to offer any solution to that particular problem. But he did welcome the ease with which they could speak to each other again. There was a painful ache about being close to her, of course. When the guests left he would have to speak to Algie and leave as soon as possible himself. And then he would never see her again. But there would be some consolation in the knowledge that they would be able to part as friends. And they were that, he sensed.
On the day before the ball, however, David was forced to miss a picnic that was to be held on Oakland grounds. When his brother arrived with Algernon's curricle to take him up, he was already occupied with matters that could not be delayed.
"You must go without me, Rufus," he said when Mrs. Saunders showed his brother into his study. "I doubt if I shall be there at all this afternoon. Make my apologies, please? This is Mr. Macleod, Lady Wexford's solicitor. My brother, Viscount Cardwell, sir."
The two men exchanged bows.
"I hope you left Lady Wexford well," Lord Cardwell said.
The solicitor bowed his head again. "I am afraid her ladyship passed away suddenly five days ago, my lord," he said. "She had a heart seizure."
"David, I am so sorry," Lord Cardwell said, turning to observe his brother's drawn face. "We were all fond of her, of course, but I know she had a special place in your affection because she was your godmother."
"It is hard to believe," David admitted. "She had me to a garden party just a few weeks ago, you know, while I was in town with Algie. I would have wagered she had another ten years in her at least, despite her rheumatism."
"Is there anything I can do?" Lord Cardwell asked sympathetically.
"I think not," David said. "Mr. Macleod has only just arrived. He has business to discuss with me, he says."
"I shall go on to Oakland then," his brother said. "Madeline and the children will already be there. They went in the carriage with Algie. I said I would come for you, as you would be the one the boys would crawl all over if we brought the carriage this way."
The solicitor too left just an hour later, having declined David's offer of hospitality. He wanted to be well on his way back to London by nightfall, he said.
It was not too late to go to the picnic, but David decided not to. His mind was in too much turmoil. He needed time to think. And he suspected that he was going to need even more time to reflect and to pray. Some decisions were just not easy to make. Sometimes it was quite impossible to know which course of action was right and which wrong, which would help one progress toward one's destiny and which would set one forever on the wrong path.
Obviously, he had not made himself at all clear to his godmother during their final meeting. She must have still been convinced that only his pride held him back from accepting her offer of help. Had she realized when she changed her will a mere week before her death just what a dilemma she would be placing him in?
She had been an extremely wealthy woman, even more so than he had suspected. According to the solicitor, she owned a large and prosperous estate in Gloucestershire in addition to the Richmond home. Her jewels would have done justice to an Eastern potentate. Those on their own would have made her quite securely wealthy.
She had no family, no one to whom to leave her riches. So she had left them all to David, apart from some bequests to old and faithful servants. He had become instantly a wealthy man, far more so than his brother. But matters were not as simple as that. The will stated a condition. David must reside in the Richmond home or on the Gloucestershire estate for at least the following five years, and he must either give up the church altogether or accept a post deemed suitable by her friend Bishop Haines. If he failed to keep those conditions, then the whole of her estate would be given to various specified charities.
He was to be given sixty days in which to make his decision.
He could marry Rachel. That had been his first thought. He would be able to keep her in the manner to which she was accustomed. He would be able to afford for her the clothes and luxuries that she was used to. If they lived in Richmond, she would be able to continue to socialize with people of her own class. Yet at the same time, he could continue with his chosen way of life. He could accept the post the bishop would offer him. He had decided that he must leave this particular parish anyway, and he had no idea of where he would go. Why not to London and certain employment? He could serve God as well in London as he could in a country parish. And the money did not have to become a lure to him. Apart from the fact that he would be forced to live in the Richmond house for five years, there was no clause in the will that said he must use any of the money on himself. He could continue to live in the poverty he had chosen for himself. His riches he could use for the benefit of the poor, apart from what he would spend on Rachel, that is.
But the decision was not going to be as easy as these first thoughts might have led him to believe. An acceptance of his inheritance would be a betrayal of his commitment no matter how little he used of it for his own comfort. He had known for several years that for him service could not be a half-and-half affair. If he were to serve his Lord, he must do so with the whole of his being. He had never made any public vow of poverty, but he had made a private and solemn one before the altar of a chapel in Oxford. He did not believe it was impossible for a wealthy man to serve God, but he did believe it would be impossible for him. He could serve the vast majority of the people in the land only by becoming like them. Money would come between him and them even if it were money that he spent only on his wife and on charity. And how could he serve God unless he served His people?
The whole dilemma narrowed down to a choice between Rachel and God, he realized finally. But the thought chilled him. He did not want it to be as simple as that because then the answer was too glaringly obvious.
His godmother had loved him, he thought. She had given him an enormous gift of love: everything that was left of herself after she died. Could he reject that gift and deny her love? And was he rationalizing to think thus? Surely a gift of love must be free. Her gift was designed to set chains on him, albeit golden chains.
David finally pushed his chair back from beneath him and got restlessly to his feet. He was thinking in circles. He would go and visit the Perkins family. Mr. Perkins' mother was always glad of some company, and Mrs. Perkins' time was close. He must make sure that she had everything she needed when her time of confinement came. Mrs. Saunders had been baking. The smell of sweet spices was coming from the direction of the kitchen. He would take something with him. Mrs. Saunders would scold, of course, but she knew him well enough by now to make a double batch of almost everything she cooked.
It was oppressively hot the following day even though the morning was only half over. Rachel was wearing her finest muslin dress, but even so she was finding it hard to sit comfortably in old Mrs. Perkins' inner room. The leather binding of The Pilgrim's Progress was wet and sticky under her hand.
"There," she said, closing the book with a decisive snap. "That is the end."
"Ah." Mrs. Perkins sighed and laid her head back against the pillow. "I won't mind dying, my lady, if it can just be like that on the other side. That is a right good book."
"It is one of my favorites," Rachel said. "Shall we start another the next time I come? I thought you might enjoy one of Miss Burney's books. Camilla, perhaps."
"I don't know, my lady," old Mrs. Perkins said. "You must choose. But I would like to hear the whole story of that Ruth all the way to the end, if you would be so good. The reverend said that there is a whole book in the Bible about her."
"Yes, so there is," Rachel said. "Would you like to hear some now? I have the Bible out in the gig. And this morning's episode was very short, was it not?"
She smiled and went quickly from the room and out to the gig. She looked down at the child who grasped her skirt as she leaned across the seat to reach the Bible.
"Hello, Molly," she said. "You were helping Mam this morning by washing your own hands and face, were you not? What a helpful girl you are getting to be."
"I got a gap," the child said, smiling broadly so that Rachel could see where she had lost a front tooth.
"Oh, so you have," Rachel said. "And soon you will have a lovely new tooth to take its place."
The child danced off to her play again, satisfied that her gap had been seen and admired. Rachel picked up the Bible, only to have it taken from her grasp. She looked up, startled.
"It is too hot a day for a lady to be carrying even so slight a burden," David said with a grin. "Allow me."
Rachel smiled. "And so you should carry it," she said, "as it is on account of you that I need it. It seems that you told Mrs. Perkins that Ruth has a whole book to herself in the Old Testament. I have agreed to begin it today."
David stayed in the main room of the house for a while, talking to Mr. and Mrs. Perkins. He had two good reasons to be back at this house for the second day in succession. One concerned these two people. He had spoken to the Earl of Edgeley, he explained to Mr. Perkins, and his lordship was very willing to take him on as a footman, a job that would require a minimum of stooping and lifting. The job would be different, of course. A man who had spent his life working outdoors in the fields might find the rules and restrictions of life in a great house confining, and he might find the wearing of a grand uniform irksome. But the work was respectable and within his capabilities. He would be able to support his large family again without assistance.
His other errand concerned the elderly Mrs. Perkins. He had brought her Communion since she could no longer go to church. It seemed that his predecessor had done so only on special occasions, and no more than two or three times a year. David had pledged himself to bring Communion to all the elderly people once a week. He stepped quietly into the doorway leading to the inner room.
" 'And they said unto her,' " Rachel was reading, " 'Surely we will return with thee unto thy people.
" 'And Naomi said, Turn again, my daughters: why will ye go with me?' "
She read with an eagerness that made the story sound very immediate, David thought. Why did so many people reserve a special, very sober voice for reading the Bible?
" Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee: for whither thou goest, I will go.' "
Naomi gave in to the pleading of her daughter-in-law, David thought. She was convinced that Ruth would be unhappy following her into a foreign land to live a life that was outside her experience, yet when she had seen that Ruth's heart was set on going, she had given in to her. She should have stayed firm. Ruth would surely be unhappy with her decision. So the voice of wisdom would have said. Yet Ruth had settled in her new country, made a good marriage, and become the great-grandmother of King David, and thus an ancestress of Jesus himself.
So much for caution, for wisdom, for common sense.
"I shall read the rest of the book next time," Rachel said, then looked around sharply and saw David standing in the doorway. She got hastily to her feet. "I shall leave you with the Reverend Gower."
David had had a third reason for stopping at that particular cottage that morning. "Will you wait for me?" he asked as Rachel turned to leave. "I wish to talk with you."
"There is going to be a storm, Reverend," Mrs. Perkins said when Rachel had left. "Make sure her ladyship gets home before the rain."
David smiled. "I think you are right," he said. "But I believe it will be night before the storm breaks.''
"She is very pretty," Mrs. Perkins said, giving him a shrewd look that stopped just short of a wink.
Rachel had missed David at the picnic the afternoon before. She was very conscious of the passing of each day. After tonight's ball there would be only one more day before the departure of all the guests. David would leave soon after that. In fact the whole of life would then change. She would tell Algie that she did not after all think it wise for them to become betrothed. And she would begin living without either of the two men she loved so dearly.
She held herself firm against panic. There were still a few days left. She must enjoy them to the full. The future was so very unknown that it would serve no purpose to try to look ahead. She must enjoy today and tomorrow and then face the future one day at a time.
She was afraid. If she allowed herself to think, she was terrified. But she should not be. It was a long-ingrained habit always to fear that life's yawning emptiness would claim her. Her new certain knowledge that it would not do so had not yet had time to take root in her unconscious mind. She did not know what her future would be. She did not believe that she would ever marry, though it might be a childishly romantic notion to think that one would mourn the loss of one man for a lifetime. She did not know for sure that she would stay at Oakland. Perhaps Papa would wish to remove to his principal seat of Greenslades at some time in the future. He frequently talked of doing so. Perhaps she would beg him to take her there if she found that her friendship with Algie was no longer the comfortable thing it had always been.
Of only one thing was she certain. She was going to allow the pattern of her life to unfold without resistance. She was going to put her faith in a higher power than herself. David had been quite right. She had done much thinking about what he had said in the nursery at Singleton Hall. And he was right. There was nothing restricting or dreary about accepting and living a religious faith. She had already started to do both without even fully realizing the fact.
And she had told David the truth. Her mornings were the happiest part of her days. The happiest part of her life, in fact. There was meaning in doing things for others. It was only in giving that one could receive. Jesus Himself had said it. What she had given over the years and especially in the past few weeks was paltry in return for the happiness and the friendships she had gained.
So for the first time she had abandoned herself to life without fear. And she had hunted through the New Testament until she found the passage she was looking for: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, That even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.... Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself."
And Rachel had known a measure of peace during the days of hectic activity that would culminate in the ball of that evening.
She was stooping down listening to one of the Perkins boys explain the significance of the crisscrossing trails marked out in the dust before him when David came out of the cottage. She stood up and held out a hand to him.
"Lord Cardwell told us yesterday about Lady Wexford," she said. "I am sorry, David. I liked her and I know she was someone very special to you."
He took her hand. "She and Lord Wexford were like grandparents to me," he said. "Generous and indulgent. Even though I have not seen her often since I grew up I shall miss her. Thank you, Rachel. May I walk along beside you? What I wish to say to you concerns my godmother." -
"Oh?" Rachel made no effort to persuade him to climb into the gig with her. There were too many bad memories of the last time they had ridden together. Instead, she walked beside him, leading the horse by the bit until David took her place.
"Shall we tether the horse to that tree," David suggested a few minutes later, when they were out of sight of the cottage, "and stroll out into the pasture? What I have to say is of some importance."
Rachel glanced at him in curiosity. They said nothing until they had climbed a stile into one of the pastures of the estate and strolled along one side in the shadow of a high hedge, where they were partly sheltered from the oppressive rays of the sun.
"I have the chance to change my life quite radically," David said, breaking the silence between them abruptly at last. "I am in a position to ask you to be my wife, Rachel."
Rachel stopped walking instantly and spun to face him. Her face looked stunned but her eyes widened. "David?" The word could scarcely force itself past her stiffened lips.
"It is true," he said, laughing at her expression. "I can marry you, Rachel, if you will have me, and provide you with the sort of life you are accustomed to." He took both her hands in his when she continued to stare at him.
"If I will have you?" she whispered then. Her face lit up and she snatched her hands away from his and threw her arms around his neck. "If I will have you? David! David, what a very foolish thing to say. You know I will have you under any circumstances you might name. I love you. Oh, how I love you."
David wrapped his arms around her and held her tight against him. "Rachel." He lowered his head and buried his face against the side of her neck. "Rachel, my love, how could I contemplate life without you? You are my life, my inspiration, my joy." There were tears glistening in his eyes when he lifted his head to look down into her eager face. "I love you."
The heat of the day was such that the touch of another body, even the chance brushing of hands, should have been an agony. But what is the heat of the most oppressive of days when compared with a love that at last is allowed an outlet? Rachel was somehow free of her bonnet, and somehow her hands and her body had found their way past the barrier of David's coat and waistcoat, and his mouth was over hers, all with never a thought between them of the discomforts of the day that continued to blaze around them.
And the only need that expressed itself was to draw closer and closer yet. His mouth opened over hers. One hand cupped the back of her head and held it firm while his tongue ravaged her mouth. She pressed her breasts and thighs against the firmness of his body and opened her mouth wider to his invasion. When his hands on her shoulders did remove her from him, it was only so that he might kiss her throat and slide his hands down to touch and caress her breasts. Rachel threw back her head and pushed her palms in circles over the firm muscles of his chest.
It was only when his hands came behind her hips and pulled her hard against him that they looked again into each other's eyes and knew a measure of reality again.
"Rachel," he said with a somewhat shaky laugh, "I want you so badly. But I would not dishonor you, love. I fear I have done so already. Forgive me." His hands were gentle on her shoulders as he put her from him. He bent and kissed her softly on the lips, his breathing still not quite under his control.
"I do not care," she said, the dreamy passion of her eyes giving place to a bright shining. "I am going to trust you with the whole of the rest of my life. I trust you now whatever happens. David. Oh, David, is it true? Have you finally seen that you will not be the ruin of my happiness? Oh, I do love you, and there can be no dishonor in showing each other that love."
"I had expected to have to make a long explanation," he said, drawing the backs of his fingers across her cheek. "I see that I underestimated the power of your feelings. You will marry me, then, Rachel? It is settled?"
"How could you have doubted for a moment that I would?" she said, turning her head and kissing his wrist. "I have never made a secret of my feelings for you. Will we continue to live here, or will you feel it better to move away? I shall not care. As long as I am with you, and as long as I can share your vision of life, I could live quite happily in a Gypsy caravan. I will not be a burden to you, David. I have found the purpose of my life through you."
"You will not need to make any sacrifices for me," he said, framing her face with his hands. "We will be living in Richmond, and you will be able to continue with the sort of life you have been brought up to. Nothing need change except that you will be living in my home instead of your father's, and that you will be a wife."
Rachel's eyes had lost their sparkle. They looked wary now. "I don't understand," she said.
“My godmother left me everything," he said. "She was an extremely wealthy woman, Rachel."
Rachel stared at him, frowning. "And you are going to give up your way of life," she said, "because you have inherited a fortune?"
"I shall still work as a clergyman," he said. "But now I can afford to marry you, Rachel."
She shook her head slowly and he removed his hands. "No," she said. "You cannot do that, David. You will lose yourself if you move away to a different life from the one you have been leading here. Will you not? I don't like it. I wish she had not done it. Oh, it will spoil everything if you become nothing but a wealthy gentleman."
"I do not have to accept," he said. "I have sixty days in which to decide. Fifty-nine, to be exact. If I refuse to accept the conditions, the whole estate will go to certain charities. If I accept, I must live in Richmond and I must accept a post found for me by a bishop friend of my godmother's."
"Don't accept," Rachel said.
He stared blankly at her.
"If it were not for me," she said, looking directly into his eyes, "if I did not exist, what would you do, David?"
"I would refuse my inheritance," he said slowly.
"Then I refuse your offer, David," Rachel said quietly. "I thank you for the honor you have done me and for the sacrifice you are prepared to make for me. But I cannot marry you. My answer is final."
She stooped to pick up her bonnet from the grass, turned, and walked back the way they had come. David did not move from where he stood until long after he heard the horse and gig pass behind the hedge at his back.
She was to have no time to brood over her raw feelings, Rachel discovered as soon as she returned home. The Marquess of Stanford had arrived in her absence, having discovered after all, he had explained to Lord and Lady Edgeley, that he was able to join the final couple of days of their house party. He was still in the salon where the butler had shown him on his arrival and where the earl and countess had gone to greet him. Rachel joined them there.
She was glad he had come, she thought as soon as she had made her curtsy and while he crossed the room to her, raised her hand to his lips, and smiled in that charming way of his. She had felt dismay when the butler had told her a couple of minutes before. Her life could not stand yet another complication. And indeed, she had all but forgotten about the marquess in the previous few weeks. Yet as soon as she set eyes on his figure, fashionable and elegant despite the dust of travel, she knew that perhaps he was just what she needed today.
She could not afford anyway to withdraw to her own room, as she wished to do, to lick her wounds and cry her heart out. Apart from the fact that she had friends to entertain for the afternoon, she had to be ready for Algie's ball during the evening. It would not do at all to appear there looking wan and puffy-eyed. She owed it to Algie if to no one else to be her usual self.
The presence of the marquess would help her overcome her black mood. She must appear at her very best for this gentleman who had come presumably to renew his offer for her. And everyone would know or guess his purpose. There had been enough gossip in London. It was to be expected that she would be in high spirits. Then in high spirits she would be! She smiled her brightest smile and inquired after the health of Lord Stanford's sister and the comfort of his journey.
Indeed, Rachel thought a couple of hours later, when she ran lightly downstairs after luncheon, her straw bonnet swinging from its ribbons in one hand, perhaps the marquess was the answer to all her problems. If she were to marry him, she would be taken far away to a new life. Algie would understand-he had said himself, in fact, that she must not rush into a betrothal with him lest she decide to accept Stanford's proposal in the autumn. He would not have to know or suspect the truth about David if she married Lord Stanford.
"Here I am," Rachel called gaily to the group waiting in the hallway. "Have I kept everyone waiting?"
The younger people had decided to walk across the hills to the Red Fox Inn. It would be the best direction to enable Lord Stanford to see the beauty of the surrounding countryside, all had agreed. Lord Rivers had no plans to call that afternoon, Rachel explained with some inner relief. He was busy with the preparations for his dinner and ball that evening.
It was a gay and noisy group that set out in pairs. Miss Lacey walked with Mr. Hart, who had been teased mercilessly in the previous few days as a dark horse. Celia walked with Lord Morrison. Rachel, of course, was with the Marquess of Stanford. Two other couples led the way. But they soon found the afternoon oppressively hot. It was sure to storm before the night was out, they all agreed.
The marquess drew Rachel to the back of the group, his footsteps lagging.
"You have boundless energy, ma'am," he said. "In town I thought perhaps it manifested itself only in dancing, but I see that you can outstride anyone over hill and dale even in the heat of summer."
"I am afraid it has always been a failing of mine to rush headlong into life's next episode," Rachel said. "I am only just learning how to enjoy the moment."
"Indeed," he said, "I have found myself with the same tendency in the past few weeks. I have never known Tunbridge so dull. I promised to stay away from you until the end of summer, Lady Rachel. I am afraid I have arrived rather early. I hope I have not offended you?"
"On the contrary, my lord," she said, "I am delighted that you have come in time for the ball this evening. It promised to be somewhat dull with almost no new faces since the last ball."
"And have you enjoyed your few weeks in the country, ma'am?" he asked. "Have your guests helped alleviate the boredom of country living?"
"Oh," she said, and laughed, "country living is not boring, my lord. There is a great deal to do here. It is town living that is dull."
"What?" he said. "Is this Lady Rachel Palmer speaking? The young lady who was famous during the Season for never being idle? And you can call that life dull? You tease me."
"Here I have the countryside," she said. "All the vast and quiet spaces of creation. It is true that I have not had much chance to enjoy them lately because there are so many people with whom to spend my time. But I love nothing more than to wander alone. Do you like solitude, ray lord? Do you like quietness? Do you like to wonder about the created world and where it all came from and what is behind it all?"
He smiled his charming smile and touched her fingers lightly where they rested on his arm. "You would enjoy travel, I can see," he said. "And there is so much more to see than the English countryside, Lady Rachel. I would like to show you all the countries of Europe. There would be so much to see, I promise you, that you would not have time to think or wonder about it all. You would be able to feast your senses in beauty."
Rachel smiled briefly. "And there are all my friends here," she said. "My father's tenants and laborers. I have always enjoyed visiting them and talking to them. Recently I have learned that I have much to gain from them in the way of love and knowledge of a life beyond my own experience. And I have learned that I can share my own life with them, particularly my knowledge of reading and books."
"How very charming!" the marquess said, and he squeezed her hand. "Your father has a reputation for fair and charitable dealings with those on his estates. He is a deeply religious man, I have heard. You have learned from him, and I find that very touching. A devotion to charitable works is a great asset to a lady's reputation."
"Charitable works," Rachel said, wrinkling her nose and looking ahead of her down the slope they were about to descend.
"I would always encourage you to retain your interest in the poor," he said. "I would enjoy seeing you patronize certain select charities."
"I have been planning to start a school," Rachel said, "to teach the children to read."
He laughed softly. "You are very charming," he said, "and very young. Even supposing that they could learn, Lady Rachel, have you considered what these children would do with their knowledge? They would merely acquire ideas above their station, you know. However, there are certain charity schools in London that may be well worth patronizing. Perhaps you would like me to look into the matter?"
"No," Rachel said hesitantly. "No, I would not wish you to trouble yourself, my lord."
"What a very delightful prospect there is from this hill," the marquess said. "I do not wonder that you love the countryside, Lady Rachel. There is nowhere quite like England, you know. Though I must confess the weather reminds me more of Italy at the moment. It is to be hoped that the storm does not break until tomorrow. I look forward to this evening's ball. You have reserved a set for me? I will hope that you can bear not to dance during that set. I believe I will wish to use the time and the romantic atmosphere for a talk that will be too important for a ballroom floor."
He smiled warmly down at her and squeezed her hand again.
Rachel was pleased to note that they were catching up to Celia and Lord Morrison, whose footsteps had also lagged in the heat. Soon the four of them were strolling together, and the conversation became general.
No, it would really not do, she was deciding rather sadly. She had grown up a little perhaps in the last few weeks. Just a few weeks before, she had walked this same route with Algie and had ended up begging him to marry her because she had seen marriage as a way to drown out her infatuation for David. She had ended up behaving badly to Algie. It was only very recently that she had started to wonder if he really wanted to marry her after all. He had shown no great eagerness for that betrothal when she had suggested it.
In her terrible conceitedness at the time she had assumed that his reluctance was all for her sake. But perhaps not. Perhaps Algie was far wiser than she and had realized that they would not suit as husband and wife. She supposed now that it would be better if this really were the truth. If it were not, if Algie really did love her and wish to marry her, then she had raised false hopes in him and within the next few days she would have to hurt him. All because she had not realized that marriage to one man can do nothing whatsoever to dull the pain of love for another.
And yet just that morning she had thought briefly yet again that perhaps it would be possible. She had thought about marrying the Marquess of Stanford. But she knew that she could not. For one thing, she could not be the sort of person he thought her to be or lead the sort of life he would intend her to lead.
He could offer her a great deal: a life of travel and privilege and social involvement as well as an attractive and charming person. And he was not a heartless man. He would allow her to involve herself in charitable works. But it was not a life she could lead. It would have no possible meaning to her. She would feel removed from life, a spectator merely. Life would be permanently as it had been for those few months in London, so very full and busy that there was no room for silence and thought and feeling. No room for love. No room for God.
She could not do it. The marquess was going to ask her again that evening to be his wife, and she was going to give him a final answer. Mama and Papa would call her mad. No marriage to Algie. No marriage to the Marquess of Stanford. And after all the opportunities they had given her by taking her to London! And that visit had been a great sacrifice to Papa, who hated town. But she could not enter either marriage merely to please them. She could not.
"I was never so glad to see a red fox even at the end of a long and fruitless day of following the hounds," Lord Morrison said as the inn came into view over the final rise of land.
Rachel joined gaily in the laughter of the other two.
David had dressed reluctantly for dinner. There could not be a great deal of excitement, of course, in donning the same clothes that one had worn to every evening social function for the past two years. But it was not that that caused him to lag, even though he knew that he was in danger of being late. Neither was it his usual feeling that social pleasures were largely a waste of time. After all, Rufus and Madeline were to be at the dinner and ball. In two more days they would be gone, and he had no idea when he would see them again.
His reason for not wanting to go despite his brother's presence was of course, as always, Rachel. He had thought-no, he had expected-that by tonight they would be betrothed. Not officially, of course. She would want some time first to speak to Algie. And he would have to speak to Lord Edgeley. But he had expected that the matter would be settled between the two of them. He had expected that his future would be assured, that he would no longer have to plague his mind with doubts and questions and decisions. If she had said yes, he would have felt himself committed, even before the betrothal could be official.
But he had been rejected. Accepted and then rejected in no uncertain terms.
And did he feel disappointment or relief? David was still not quite sure which. There was, of course, disappointment. He had decided finally that he would put Rachel first. He was meant to love her, he had concluded, meant to make her his wife. And he had felt strong enough in his own faith and convictions to be confident that he could continue to live a life of service even in the midst of affluence and personal contentment.
And it had seemed so right that morning when he had first asked her to marry him. All the sunshine of her bright character had shone behind her eyes when she had looked at him. He could not doubt at that moment that he had made the right decision. And that kiss they had shared! There had been passion in it, physical desire, yes. But far more than that. They had poured out their love for each other during those precious few minutes.
And then she had rejected him. Knowing what he was giving up for her, she had denied her own love for him and turned away. She would not marry him under the circumstances, she had said. And her answer was final.
Oh, yes, he was disappointed. Dead inside. No, not dead. He would not ache with emptiness and longing if he were dead. He had been so close to making her his own. He had glimpsed heaven. And now he was living at almost the opposite extreme.
Almost. But was there not also some feeling of relief? Almost as if he had been released from the threat of a great bondage? It was strange not to want that vast fortune that could so easily be his. He could be wealthy, comfortable, respected for the rest of his life. He could live the life he had been brought up to. Just a few years ago he would cheerfully have given his right arm for even half the wealth that was now his.
Yet he did not want it. He truly did not. Rachel was the only possible reason that could lead him to accepting it. He did not want to return to the old way of life. He could now see its emptiness and its lack of fairness. He was happy in the life he was leading. If he could just block all thoughts of and feelings for Rachel from his mind, he would be totally happy. He was living the life he wished to lead. He did not want to spoil it by having to live in a mansion and manage servants and keep up appearances with a reasonably active social life and a fashionable wardrobe.
Rachel's rejection had saved him from that life. He had written to his godmother's solicitor as soon as he arrived home in the morning and sent the letter on its way. He felt not a twinge of regret. Only in the loss of Rachel.
But he did not want to have to face her again that evening. Especially not in the presence of other people and at an occasion where one was forced to be determinedly gay. She would be bubbling over with high spirits, he was sure, no matter what her inner feelings might be. He could not bear the thought of seeing her so: gay, flirtatious, apparently quite carefree. He knew that there were far more lovely depths to her character than what she would allow to show at a ball.
As it happened, David was presented with a perfectly good excuse for missing the dinner at Singleton Hall. He thought he would probably still have to attend the ball, but there was not quite the same necessity to converse at length during a ball as there was at table. He was glad of even a limited reprieve. He was on his way to the Hall on foot when he met Mr. Perkins coming toward him along the village street in an aged cart pulled by a horse that appeared in little better condition. David smiled, touched his hat, and would have walked on, but his acquaintance was looking worried.
"Is anything the matter?" David asked. "Mrs. Perkins?"
"Her time has come," Mr. Parkins said. "The pains are upon her. But the midwife isn't at home, Reverend. She is tending Mrs. Purdy, who is having her first. My missus will have to wait."
David stroked his chin. He did not have any experience with pregnant women, especially when they were delivering. But he had a strong suspicion that they might find it difficult to wait upon the convenience of a midwife. "Does anyone know if she is likely to be long?" he asked.
"She has been gone since midday," said the worried Perkins. "She should be back soon, Reverend."
David hesitated. "I shall come to the cottage with you," he said briskly, walking around to the other side of the cart and climbing up to take a rough seat beside the other man. "Perhaps I shall be able to offer your wife some comfort."
David waited outside the cottage while Mr. Perkins went in to tell his wife the news about the midwife. But the man bolted outside again almost immediately, his face as' white as parchment.
"I can't do it, Reverend," he said, his voice shaking. "The ninth time, and I can't do it. I can't stand to see her suffer like that and be helpless to do anything about it. I'll be no earthly good until the midwife comes. As long as she doesn't scream! She does sometimes. I'll have to stay out here."
"Does she have any help?" David asked. "Has anyone else come? Can your daughters help at all?"
"Tess has helped the midwife the last two times and Lil did a few things last time," Mr. Perkins said, "and Mother is always calling from her room, of course, getting everyone mixed up. But they don't know much. The midwife will never allow children to stay close to the end. She will be here soon perhaps." He flashed David a pale smile. "I should go in there maybe and hold her hand."
"Perhaps I can offer some comfort," David said. "Sometimes it is easier if one is not involved directly in some crisis. The midwife will not be long, I am sure."
He opened the door and entered the cottage somewhat hesitantly. He was feeling almost as pale as Mr. Perkins looked. The younger boys and the girls, he found, were hovering around their mother as she lay on a mattress that had been dragged into the main room. The two smallest boys were crying. Old Mrs. Perkins was calling from the inner room, her words a mixture of demands for information and advice on how to proceed. Mrs. Perkins, lying limp on the mattress, her face flushed, her hair soaked with perspiration, was reaching out weakly with one hand toward one bawling infant, who appeared too frightened to come close enough for comfort.
The air inside the cottage was oppressively stuffy. The day had not cooled off at all with the coming of evening. The storm that threatened more ominously than ever still had not broken.
Then Mrs. Perkins' hands were gripping convulsively at the sides of the mattress, her back arched against pain, and she stifled moans that had the two infants wailing in terror. David shrugged out of his coat, removed his neckcloth, and rolled up his shirtsleeves. There was clearly a need for more than comforting words and prayer here.
"All right, Tess," he said, turning toward the ten-year-old as Mrs. Perkins began to relax again, "I am going to rely on you to help me. What do you usually do to help the midwife? Perhaps we can get all prepared for her before she comes."
Soon he had one of the older boys scurrying for clean water. He poured part of the pailful into a basin and set Tess to boiling the remainder and keeping it hot. He directed Lil to take her mother's apron from a chair and fan Mrs. Perkins' face with it. He sent the two frightened infants into the inner room to climb into the bed beside their grandmother and the remaining children outside to join their father. He did think at times that he probably would have worked far more efficiently if he had not had the two older girls, old Mrs. Perkins, and Mrs. Perkins between her pains all telling him what needed to be done.
He took the basin of cold water and a cloth and set about the task of washing off the hot face of the woman on the mattress. He folded the cloth and laid it on her forehead. He took one of her hands and held it tightly when the pains took her, murmuring soothing words until she began to relax again. And on the advice of the quavering voice coming from the inner room, he set Lil to finding all the rags she could ready for the birth.
"Oh, God bless you, Reverend," Mrs. Perkins said weakly when he first began to apply the cool cloth. "I am sorry I'm not much help. The pains are bad, and I can't think straight. Will the midwife be here soon?"
"Soon," David assured her soothingly. "And don't even try to think. Tess and Lil are doing a splendid job of getting ready for the midwife, and your mother-in-law is making sure that we do not forget anything. And I am here to hold your hand." He smiled, wondering how his voice could sound so cool and confident. "Relax."
But she arched against the pain again, breathing loudly and raggedly, moaning aloud when it was at its worst, so that David had to fight terror and panic, had to force himself to hold her hand firmly and reassuringly.
And his whole world became focused on the suffering woman on the mattress before him, a woman who was racked with pain every few minutes, tensed, arched against it. A woman who faced her ordeal with a dogged courage, biting her lips against the agony until they were raw and bleeding, allowing groans to escape her only at the very worst moments. His whole purpose in life became to assist her, to somehow help her endure the pain, to offer all the comfort and relief that he, a mere male, was capable of.
He found that she turned her head to look at him between her pains, staring into his eyes as he dabbed at her face and neck with the cool cloth, almost as if only by doing so could she find the strength to endure the next onslaught. He found himself looking back, his eyes smiling down at her, his lips forming words that he could not remember afterward. And when she did speak, he answered her questions soothingly, assuring her that the little ones were with their grandmother, probably asleep, that clean water had been boiled, that plenty of rags were ready.
And that the midwife would surely be there soon.
By the time she had danced the first two sets, Rachel knew that she would not be able to keep up her facade of gaiety for the whole of the long evening ahead. She could have done so if David had been there. She could have been the brightest flame at the ball if David had been present. She would have felt compelled to be so. But he was not there, and she could feel her composure crumbling.
She had prepared herself to endure the evening. She had worn her favorite sea-green lace gown with its underdress of midnight blue. She had had her maid dress her curls high in an elaborate coiffure. And she had sparkled as she left her room and joined the other members of the house party in the drawing room at Oakland. More than one person there had commented that she looked as if she were about to attend a London ball, as if she were about to make her come-out again.
She had shared a carriage with Sir Herbert Fanshawe, Miss Ames, and the Marquess of Stanford, and she had monopolized the conversation with her bright chatter and gay laughter. She had entered the dining room on the arm of the marquess, knowing that several people around her were murmuring at the apparent renewal of a London courtship. Through dinner her relief at not having to face David had been enough to sustain her mood. All attention at her end of the table had been focused on her. Everyone around her had appeared happy and full of laughter.
But she could not sustain the mood. It became clear when the music had started that David was not coming at all. And so Rachel was desperately unhappy, feeling that only his presence could have given her the strength to continue her playacting. Suddenly, without David there, there seemed no point in keeping up the deception.
Algie had been so kind to her all week. He had been kind to her tonight, smiling the length of the table at her whenever there was a burst of laughter from her group, leading her into the opening set, complimenting her on her appearance.
She felt cheap, shoddy. Wretched. Her life was one big lie. Her smile became actively painful to maintain.
At the end of the second set, Rachel grabbed Algernon by the arm, smiling brightly up at him. "Take me outside, Algie," she said. "I want to talk with you."
"Are you very warm, Rache?" he asked. "It is a wicked night for a ball, is it not? I wish that wretched storm would break. You will feel better when it does."
"I need to talk with you," she said, her smile slipping a degree.
"I have asked Madeline for the next set," he said. "Can you wait half an hour, Rache?"
He looked closely at her and frowned slightly. "Wait here," he said. "I shall go and make my excuses to Madeline."
Rachel's smile had slipped all the way by the time he rejoined her a few minutes later. Algernon looked at her in some concern as he tucked her arm through his and led her through the French doors onto the lawn outside.
ALgernon kept his hand over hers.
"What is it, Rache?" he asked when they were out of earshot of the couples strolling on the terrace in an attempt to escape the heavy heat of the ballroom. "It is unlike you to miss any of the dancing and to request that I do so. too."
"Will this storm never break?" she asked rather petulantly, glancing up to the dark sky. As if in answer, a distant rumble of thunder seemed to shake the air around them.
Algernon squeezed her hand. "You aren't afraid of storms, Rache," he said. "Tell me what is the matter."
"I can't marry you, Algie!" she cried, pulling her arm from his and turning to face him. "Just a few weeks ago I had the effrontery to ask you to offer for me and to persuade you almost to promise that we would be betrothed in the autumn. And you were so kind and understanding and have been ever since. But I have changed my mind, and I feel so dreadful about it. You are easily the nicest man I know, and I do love you dearly, believe me I do. But I can't marry you."
Algernon clasped his hands behind his back and looked down at her. "Don't upset yourself, Rache," he said calmly. "If you feel you cannot marry me, I am not going to force you. And neither is anyone else. It is nothing to get dreadfully upset about, you know. There was nothing official after all, was there? Do you want to tell me what has happened? Has Stanford offered again? And do you wish to accept him? You must not feel guilty about me if that is so. It will be a splendid match for you. And I believe he will make you a good husband. Come, talk to me. We have always been friends, have we not? We have always been comfortable together."
"Yes, we have," she said. "And loved each other. And that is the trouble. I cannot marry you because I would not be able to make you happy, and it would break my heart to know that I was causing you misery. Lord Stanford has nothing to do with this, Algie. I will not be marrying him either, though I believe he means to offer again later this evening. I am not going to marry anyone."
"Your Season in town has made you restless," he said, smiling kindly down at her. "I guessed when I saw you in London that the country would no longer suit you. You have learned that society has a great deal to offer someone with your beauty and your gaiety. And there is nothing wrong with that, Rache. You must not feel guilty that you now find me somewhat dull. I am dull, and make no apology for the fact. And if Stanford does not suit, you must not become upset over that either. You will find the perfect husband eventually, I promise, and be happy for the rest of your life. Come on, cheer up, you little goose."
"Oh, no," Rachel said, looking earnestly into his eyes. "You misunderstand quite, Algie. I do not want more of social life. All of that has grown remarkably tedious. It has meant nothing to me since I have discovered that what I really want is a useful purpose in life. I am not rejecting you because I consider you dull. Oh, please don't think that. I don't want London. I don't want balls."
"A useful purpose," he said, flicking one finger beneath her chin. "Like all this tripping off to your father's tenants and hauling along books to read to the elderly, Rache? Is that what you mean by being useful?" He frowned. "But you cannot make a way of life of that. You will need a home and family besides."
Rachel shook her head. "I am going to start a school," she said. "I want to teach the children to read."
Algernon grinned. "You, Rache?" he said, amusement in his voice. "And you are quite serious, are you not? I can see it in the set of your chin. What will your papa say to that?"
"I am not sure," she said. "But his opinion will make no difference, anyway."
Algernon placed his hands on her shoulders and continued to grin down at her. "You know, Rache," he said, "it is David you should be marrying."
Rachel stared at him numbly.
"Good God!" His hands tightened and his expression instantly sobered. "Have I been that blind, Rache? Is that it? Is it David?"
"I think I would have discovered what I have even without him," Rachel said carefully, "but probably not quite so soon. Perhaps I never would have found the meaning of my life and I would always have wondered why I was restless and not quite happy."
Algernon nodded slowly, his eyes searching hers. "And you love David too."
Rachel did not answer. She did not need to. Algernon's words had not been a question.
"I would not have expected it," he said. "He is devilish handsome, of course, but I wouldn't have thought that he would attract you in the least, Rache. You seem such opposites. And does he love you too?"
Rachel hesitated. "He is going to leave," she said. "He is waiting until his brother goes home and then he is going to talk to you. I will not be going with him."
"Even knowing that you are not going to marry me, he is still leaving alone?" Algernon asked. "Poor Rache." He spoke very gently.
"How can you sympathize with me?" she asked. "I have done dreadful things to you, Algie. Persuading you that we should be betrothed soon and all the time loving David. I should have told you sooner. I owed you that. We have never had secrets from each other, have we?"
"People always have to have secrets from each other, Rache," he said. "There is a part of each person that has to be private even from those we love. Otherwise we would lose our individuality, our very selves, perhaps. I think your love for David has been painful, has it not? Still is, doubtless. No, Rache, you have had every right to keep those feelings to yourself."
Rachel's eyes were troubled and tear-filled as they looked up into his. "You are such a dear man, Algie," she said. "Will you still be my friend? You will not hate me and shun me after this embarrassment? I do not think I could bear it if I thought I could no longer run to you with my troubles. I will not feel quite safe without you."
Algernon squeezed her shoulders again and drew her against him. "Silly little goose," he said. "When two people have loved each other all their lives, as you and I have, their feelings do not alter just because of one very minor embarrassment. Of course you will always be able to come to me. And of course I will always protect you from harm whenever I can. You must never doubt that. Just as I will never doubt that you will always bring a little ray of sunshine into my life whenever I see you."
"Algie," she said, lifting her face to look up into his. She paused as there was another low rumble of thunder from the distance. "You will marry? You must marry. Though I shall probably be horridly jealous of your wife and will kick myself from here to London and back for giving you up when I had the chance to marry you."
He laughed. "You will probably be one of the first to know if I ever decide to marry anyone else," he said. "So you will still have a chance to engage the lady in fisticuffs and win me back, Rache. I rather fancy the idea of two females fighting a duel over me."
Rachel laughed in spite of herself. "Oh, you do say some absurd things, Algie," she said. "I do love you so."
"Yes, I know," he said, grinning down at her. "Like a devoted sister." He bent his head and pecked her lightly on the lips. "I told Madeline that I would partner her in the next set instead of this one. I must not miss it, Rache. It would not do at all."
She smiled and pushed away from him. "I am going to stay here for a while," she said. "Algie? Thank you. You have made me feel as if it is the most ordinary thing in the world to break one's promise."
"Just don't stray far from the house," he advised. "That storm is going to be moving over fairly soon. And the sooner the better, I think. It will clear the air."
Celia was dancing with Viscount Cardwell. The atmosphere in the ballroom was very sticky even though all the doors and windows were open wide. Several couples were walking outside. Among them were Rachel and Lord Rivers. Celia had seen them go and had ruthlessly tried to quell the stab of envy she had felt. She could picture them strolling now in the garden, arms linked, talking easily, looking at each other in that way they had, their eyes glowing with their affection for each other.
She would have liked a relationship like that. She did not suppose it would ever happen now. But perhaps at some time in the future she might meet someone with whom she could be comfortable. She would not lose hope. It would be easy to go home with the idea that she had been a participant in a grand tragedy, when in reality she had merely allowed herself to indulge in a foolish infatuation.
She had known from the start that Lord Rivers was going to marry Rachel. In fact, she had known it even when they had still been at school. And she had known too from the start that it was a match in which there was deep and mutual affection. It had been foolish indeed to allow herself to be attracted by a man who could very obviously never be hers. It had been foolish to indulge in infatuation. She had allowed herself to daydream to the point at which she now felt that she was about to lose the love of her life.
How very childish! How upset Rachel would be if she knew. And how amused Lord Rivers would be. No, he would not be amused. He was too kindly a man to derive pleasure from another's pain. He would be concerned, sympathetic. How humiliating it would be if he ever found out. She would find his sympathy far more mortifying than his laughter.
He had kissed her in the rose garden, of course. By the wildest stretch of the imagination she could convince herself that he had been attracted to her, even if only for a few moments. But, no. The time for daydreams was past. At the time, he was being his usual gentle, kindly self, trying to convince her that she was neither ugly nor dull. He had kissed her in an attempt to make her feel good about herself. He had not really meant to kiss her. He had been quite distressed afterward to realize what he had done. But the very fact that he had kissed her unconsciously proved the extent of his kindness.
At least she would have that kiss to cherish for the rest of her life. Her one and only kiss. And one that had made her so dizzy and weak at the knees that she still marveled that she had not committed the ultimate blunder of clinging to him and leaning against him. Her cheeks burned now at the very thought.
"It is hardly the night for strenuous dancing, is it?" Lord Cardwell asked solicitously. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
"Oh, yes," Celia said, blushing an even deeper red when she realized the direction she had allowed her thoughts to take. "I heard thunder a few moments ago. Perhaps the air will cool off once the storm has moved over."
"I hope so," he said. "And I hope David does not get caught out in it. He must surely have had a call or he would have come. He said he would be here."
"I think you are right," Celia said. "The Reverend Gower would always put the needs of a parishioner before his own pleasure, you know."
Lord Cardwell smiled down at her, looking very much like his brother for a moment. "Yes," he said, "I have realized that. This visit has reassured me greatly. I was worried about David. I was not sure that the church would suit him as a career."
"I cannot imagine one that would suit him more," Celia said. "Everyone speaks very highly of him, even the poorest people."
The next dance was the supper dance, Celia thought. And then, immediately after supper, she was engaged to dance with Lord Rivers. A half-hour in which to be close to him and converse with him and see those kindly eyes focused on her. Probably she would see him tomorrow. And the day after, she was to leave for home, at her own insistence. She did not think she would even see Rachel again after that. She would not be able to visit Singleton Hall after those two were married.
She would have to do a great deal of living during the half-hour of that set. And then, once she was on her way home, she would have to behave in a manner worthy of her one-and-twenty years and forget her foolish infatuation. But not quite yet. She would live through tonight and tomorrow first.
Rachel wandered into the rose garden. She had to find her way more by touch than by sight, as no light from the house penetrated that far; hence she was sure of finding solitude there. There was the occasional wafting of cool air from somewhere-a harbinger of the approaching storm, she suspected. She should, of course, return to the ballroom as Algie had done. She had already missed the set she had promised to Lord Morrison. The next set, the supper dance, was engaged too, though she could not recall by whom and she could not look at her card because it was too dark. But the dance after supper she knew was engaged to the Marquess of Stanford.
But she would not dance any more that night. She simply could not face the necessity of smiling and chattering as if she had never a care in the world. And how was she to face that meeting with Lord Stanford? He had made it very clear earlier that afternoon that he was going to offer for her again this evening. Her answer was not in doubt. She had no decision to make. But she did not feel that she had the emotional strength this evening to face the embarrassment of saying no to a gentleman who seemed fully to expect the opposite. She did not believe she could behave with the required poise.
In reality she felt sick. It was true that the talk with Algie, which she had planned to postpone for at least two more days, had gone surprisingly well. It had gone far too well. She was feeling wretched enough that it would have been some comfort to be confronted by an angry, accusing young man. She should have been made to feel like some kind of monster. She should be smarting now from some blistering home truths. After all, the way she had treated him in the past few weeks had seemed uncomfortably like using him for her own ends.
Instead he had been gentle and understanding, and quite his usual affectionate self. He had not accused her of not knowing her own mind. He had not even expressed anger when he knew that she loved David. Dear Algie. She might have known that he would not create a nasty scene. Had she not always been able to turn to him with her problems and know that she would be comforted? Even this problem she had been able to bring to him. It had felt so good to tell him, to feel his hands firm on her shoulders, to be held against him, to be kissed. Strange! That was the only kiss of Algie's that she had enjoyed. That warm, sympathetic, brotherly kiss.
Rachel sighed, felt about her for the wrought-iron seat she knew was close by, and seated herself. The trouble was, she should not feel comforted. She did not deserve to feel good about herself at all. She had been very selfish in her relationship with Algie. She did not at all know the state of his feelings. Had she made him unhappy? Or was he perhaps relieved to find that after all he was not to be trapped into marrying her? She had always claimed to be his dear friend, yet she did not know this most important fact about him. But then, perhaps he had not intended her to know. Everyone had to have some secrets, even from his closest friend, he had said.
She must ask him, Rachel decided, the next time they met, if he were disappointed or not, if he had every truly wished to marry her. It would take a load off her mind to know that he was not brokenhearted over her defection.
The orchestra was playing a waltz. She had loved to waltz with Algie in London. And she thought of that one occasion when she had waltzed with David and found that he performed the dance quite as well as Algie.
David! Her pain became localized as a raw ache at the back of her throat. David. She had had her chance that morning. She had glimpsed heaven. For the space of a few minutes she had thought that all was to be well between them, that they were to marry. She had laid all her love at his feet. She had surrendered utterly to his embrace. She would have given all of herself to him there in the field if he had chosen to take her. There had been no thought of holding back.
And why now was she sitting here alone, that pain in her throat making even breathing an agony? Why was David not there with her as he had been a few weeks before? It was on just this seat she had been sitting when he had come to her that other time. The first time he had kissed her. Where was he now? Had he stayed away because of her? The popular theory at the house was that he must have been called away to a sick or dying parishioner. She was not so sure.
Rachel allowed her thoughts to return fully to the events of that morning for the first time since then. So far she had felt only the pain. Now she recalled the source of the pain-her realization that David had been willing to sacrifice all his principles, all his happiness with his chosen way of life, for her. He would never be happy living in a mansion close to London with a wife who spent his money on fashions and frivolity and her time on social pleasures. And he would be doing a job that had been found for him as a favor to his deceased godmother.
He would soon become desperately unhappy with such a life. She knew. She had, of course, not known David when such a life was the one he was used to. He was, after all, Lord Cardwell's brother. But that life would no longer suit him. David would lose his soul under such conditions. If she had accepted his proposal, she would have lived to see that smile, that look of inner peace behind his eyes, die away.
But he had been prepared to risk that for her sake.
She had been inclined to anger that morning. She had known immediately that he could do no such thing. And she blamed him for thinking that that was what she would want. Did he know her so little? Did he really consider her so shallow that she would accept him with his wealth and cheerfully watch him destroy himself?
When she had rejected him, she had been very angry. She had felt insulted rather than honored by such an offer. And was she still angry? He must have known what he was doing. David was not a man to act impulsively. He must have pondered and prayed much over his decision. And he had decided that she was more important to him than the kind of life in which he knew himself happy. He had laid a gift at her feet-the gift of his devotion, the gift of an inheritance which, on his own, he would have rejected. How could he know that the only gift she wanted from him was the gift of himself?
He had quite consciously made a great sacrifice for her sake. How could she be angry even if his decision had been misguided? She tried to see herself through David's eyes. He had known her in London, where she had lived a deliberately gay social life, given over to fashion and the pursuit of frivolity. And he had known her here, where she was still surrounded by gay young blades and bright young ladies, where every day was given over to some mindless delight. It was true that he had also seen her during the mornings reading to the elderly, telling stories to the children. But it must have looked as if that were novelty only, a very small part of her life of privilege.
Could she blame him for believing that she would not fit in with his life as it was? She would live at the vicarage, a smaller building than she had ever so much as spent a night at. There would be very few social activities with the people of her own class. She would have a husband who would be at home very little and would frequently be called from home even at night. And there would be very little money. Algie was generous in the salary he gave, she was almost sure. But she was equally sure that David spent the bulk of that money on everyone but himself.
Was he right? Would she find such a life as impossible as he would find life in that mansion in Richmond? It would not be easy. She knew that. She could see beyond the romance of marrying David and renouncing all her bright prospects for a country vicarage with the man she loved. And she knew that she would face many problems of adjustment.
But David was not right, for all that. She would be able to do it, Rachel knew. She was familiar with her present way of life, comfortable with it. But happy? No, she had not been a truly happy person since she had begun to realize that she was growing up and that certain things were expected of her as a lady and the daughter of an earl. She had learned to enjoy herself and to be at the center of activity and attention. But that did not equal happiness.
To be happy, she needed to be able to look inward and be satisfied that there was some substance, some meaning to her life. She had started that inward looking in the past few weeks and she had begun to feed her soul. Even without David she felt that she would continue in the direction her life had begun to take. It was the only direction she could take. For however long she lived, she would be forced to live with herself. And how could she do that if she found that she could not look herself in the eye? She would have to live without mirrors-either physical or spiritual.
She had already changed far more than she had realized, in fact. She could not remember another occasion when the thought of participating in a ball, dancing, and talking and being admired had driven her outside to hide.
Rachel shivered as a gust of cool air rustled the plants around her. The rumble of thunder that followed sounded closer than before. And the sky had been lit up in the far distance for a few seconds before the thunder. She would have to go inside soon.
But she could not. Facing anyone at the ball was becoming a physical impossibility to her. She could not walk back through the doors into the noise and the lights and the heat and force a smile to her lips and a sparkle to her eyes. She could not dance. Her feet might as well be loaded down with leaden weights. And she could not face Lord Stanford. She could not cope with his proposal tonight. However cowardly and rag-mannered it was to run away, run she must.
Where could she go? Should she walk home across the fields and go to bed? The thought was attractive. And she did not fear the darkness of the fields, with which she was thoroughly familiar. But she did not fancy being alone during the storm. Storms did not usually alarm her, but she did not believe she would enjoy the fury of nature that night.
She wanted to go to David, but that was an absurd wish, of course. She had an almost amused mental image of herself knocking on the vicarage door and announcing that she had come for a visit. How lovely it would be, though, to sit inside that rather austere and quiet building, curled up on a sofa with her head on David's shoulder, just talking quietly while the storm raged around them. Rachel sighed.
She had another notion, almost as ridiculous. She wanted to visit one of the cottages, sit down inside, and just soak up the atmosphere of humble family life. It might not be impossible to accomplish. It was true that some of the families fussed a great deal when she arrived, as if she were some creature from another world. But many accepted her as they had all through her childhood and girlhood, and treated her with cheerful courtesy and even affection.
The only trouble with visiting any family now was that it must be late already. Only the idle rich could afford the energy expended on staying up until midnight and even beyond, someone had told her once. It was unlikely that she would find anyone still up. Should she try? If all the cottages were in darkness, then she would go home. She would probably still race the storm, which seemed to be moving over very slowly. If worse came to worst, she would just have her maid sleep in her room for company.
Rachel jumped resolutely to her feet. That was what she would do. Ten minutes later she was driving Algernon's gig away from the stables, having persuaded a doubtful and disapproving groom that it would be quite all right with Lord Rivers for her to do so. She had left with the man the message that she would see her family at home. She rather regretted the worry she would probably cause them, but there was no point in even considering going back to the house to give the message to a more official person, like her papa. She would never be allowed to leave alone, especially with a long-threatened storm on its way.
Lightning lit her way as the gig bounced its way over the rutted road, and thunder rumbled at her back.
Most of the guests had moved back to the ballroom from the supper room long before the orchestra started to play again. The display through the long doors was too spectacular to be missed. Lightning flashed almost constantly, zigzagging in dazzling streaks across the sky, revealing trees and grass being bowed and tossed by the wind. Crashes of thunder came soon enough after the flashes to make it clear that the storm was close and coming ever closer.
More than one lady fortunate enough to have a husband or betrothed to cling to, clung quite shamelessly. Others huddled in groups for reassurance. Even as they watched, the rain swept down. There was no gentle beginning, no warning to anyone foolish enough to be outdoors that it was time to seek shelter, just a sudden and overwhelming downpour. Those who had to travel any distance after the ball was over began to wonder if the roads would be passable. Perhaps they would have to impose on the hospitality of Lord Rivers for the night.
Algernon entered the ballroom from the direction of the main hall. He was looking quite thoroughly disheveled, his normally somewhat unruly fair hair completely wild. Fortunately, his coat was dry. He had reached the house before the heavens opened. He looked around him and made his way to where Lord and Lady Edgeley were standing, seemingly uninterested in the natural fireworks display proceeding beyond the windows. He spoke quietly to them and smiled before turning away and looking around again.
He saw the object of his search almost immediately as Celia appeared in the doorway, her face looking drawn and somewhat frightened. Algernon hurried toward her and took one of her hands in his.
"You need worry no longer, Miss Barnes," he said, squeezing the hand he held. "The foolish girl has gone home."
"Gone home?" said Celia. "You mean to Oakland? Alone? And in this storm?"
"Yes to the first two questions," he said with a slight smile. "But it seems she left quite a while ago with my gig. She will have arrived safely home before the wind really got up, and certainly before this rain. She will be quite safe. There is a houseful of servants to keep her company."
Celia looked uncomprehending. "But why would she do such a thing?" she asked. "She was vastly looking forward to this ball. She was in high spirits-even for Rachel-earlier this evening. And she seemed delighted today by the arrival of Lord Stanford. It is unlike Rachel not to honor her commitment to her partners."
Algernon looked down at her, his smile no longer in place. "I think I know the reason," he said. "Rache told me earlier this evening that she does not wish our betrothal to become official after all."
"She what?" Celia stared blankly at him.
"Please excuse me for a minute, ma'am," he said. "I must see if the orchestra is willing to play some lively tune so that we may start the dancing again. I shall be back to claim our dance."
But when he returned to her side a few minutes later, Algernon did not immediately lead her into a set.
"Would you care to find somewhere quiet to sit and talk?" he asked. "After the excitement of tearing all over the house for the last half-hour looking for Rache, you probably feel more like resting than dancing."
"Yes," Celia said, eyeing two empty chairs close to the door.
But Algernon laid her hand on his arm and led her from the room into the main hall. It was flooded with light. Even the normally shadowed alcoves had been hung with branches of candles. He led Celia into the library and seated her at the fireplace. He did not light any candles in the room but left the door wide open for the sake of light and a measure of propriety.
"I am sorry about you and Rachel," Celia said hesitantly. "I do not understand it. You seem so well-suited. Are you sure that it is not all some quarrel that will be set to rights tomorrow?"
"Yes, I am sure," he said quietly, seating himself in a chair at the opposite side of the fireplace. "Rache was quite clear on that point."
"Is it Lord Stanford?" she asked hesitantly. "But I was so sure that Rachel does not really care for him."
"No, I think he has nothing to do with her decision," Algernon said.
Celia stared into the shadows. She could not see his face clearly, though flashes of lightning revealed that he was looking at her. "I am sorry," she said. "The evening has been ruined for you."
"Not really," he said. "Rache and I are very dear friends. Always have been. But I think it is probably better that it remain that way. I am not sure that marriage would be wise for us."
"But you love each other," Celia blurted, her eyes wide.
"Yes," he admitted, "we do. Like brother and sister. Or perhaps somewhat more than the average brother and sister. But not like husband and wife."
Celia said nothing for a while. Her hands twisted in her lap. "But you agreed to become betrothed," she said, "a mere few weeks ago."
"Foolish, is it not?" Algernon said gently. "I remember Rache when she was ten years old and all skinny arms and legs and eager eyes. I knew then that she was very dear to me. Oh, I felt very superior and protective with a year of university behind me, of course. But that affection has never faded. Or hers for me. Under the circumstances I suppose it was natural for several people to assume that we would marry one day. But deep and lasting affection is not necessarily the same emotion as the love one hopes to have for a spouse. Since our, er, unofficial betrothal, we have both discovered persons who would be far more suitable partners."
Algernon watched quietly from the shadows as her eyes widened again and her face took on comprehension. "Rachel loves someone else?" she asked. "But that cannot be. Who?"
"The Reverend David Gower, it would seem," Algernon said.
Celia stared. "She is my closest friend," she said eventually. "How is it that I have not noticed?"
"I think perhaps because she has been trying to hide the fact even from herself," Algernon said. "I was taken totally by surprise too, and usually I know what is going on in Rache's mind. We are close friends."
"Are they to marry?" Celia asked.
"When I asked the same question, she told me merely that David will be leaving here soon after all the guests have gone," Algernon said. "I take it there is to be no marriage."
"No, they would not suit," Celia said. Then Algernon watched as a frown drew her brows together. She stared down at her hands, not speaking for a long while. "What a foolish thing to say," she continued. "Of course. But of course. He is what has been missing from Rachel's life for as long as I have known her. Rachel has always needed a cause, you know. Yes, Mr. Gower is just the sort of man to whom she would attach herself. With great devotion. And for life. But they are not to marry?"
Algernon shook his head, though he did not know if she could see the gesture, as he was sitting totally in shadow, his back to the door. She looked at him for a while and then simultaneously with a flash of lightning her head jerked downward. There was not enough light for him to see if she had changed color.
"Did you just recall the rest of what I said?" he asked.
She did not answer. But she did not ask him to explain his meaning.
"I love Rache," Algernon said quietly, "and had she not spoken tonight, I would perhaps have felt honor-bound to contract a betrothal with her soon. If that had happened, I would have devoted most of the energies of my life to seeing her happy and protected. But I would always have known that I had wished to pursue the acquaintance of the woman with whom I might have been happy for the rest of my life."
Celia looked up, an agony of embarrassment in her face. "My lord?" she said.
"Algernon." She lost her courage suddenly, looked down, and jerked to her feet. "I must return to the ballroom," she said. "It will not look good if I am missed."
Algernon too got to his feet. "It seems almost in bad taste, does it not," he said, "to pay my addresses to a lady a mere few hours after another has released me from a sort of promise? But you are to leave the day after tomorrow, Celia, and who knows if there will be any opportunity tomorrow to have a private word with you? I must speak now."
"No." Celia looked at him again, her eyes not quite steady on his face. "It is just that you are naturally disappointed over Rachel. And you must know that I like you and admire you, my lord. That is all it is."
"Algernon," he corrected. "And that is not all it is, Celia. You have such a poor opinion of yourself, do you not? You cannot imagine that a man could love you and want you for his wife?"
"Not you," she said. "Oh, not you, my 1...Algernon. You are so very… handsome. You… Oh, no, you could not possibly love me."
"But I do," he said. Her hands were like two blocks of ice when he took them in his own. "I have known for some time that you are the lady I would want for my wife if I were entirely free to choose. You are quiet and gentle and sensible, Celia. And quite lovely. I find you lovely. I want you, in every way it is possible to want a woman. And now I am quite free to tell you so. Will you have me, my dear?"
"Oh," she said, and her hands moved convulsively against his, "I shall wake up in a moment and find that this is all a dream. And I shall laugh at my own foolishness."
"Shall I pinch you?" he asked, smiling down gently at her. "I love you, Celia, and I want you to be my wife. My baroness. Lady Rivers. I want you as my companion, my confidante, my lover. Will you?"
"Oh," she said again. It sounded more like a wail than an exclamation. "I have loved you so very much. I have been so envious of Rachel. I never dreamed that you could feel the same way about me. You love me? You really love me?"
Algernon clucked his tongue with mock exasperation and jerked on her hands suddenly. "I must kiss you," he said. "Ever since I kissed you in the rose garden I have been obsessed by the need to do so again. And to hold you close to me, Celia. Ah, yes, I knew you would feel like this. So slender and so beautiful. Will you let me kiss you?"
"Algernon." She whispered his name and looked up at him in wonder. She made no attempt to push away from him. Her breasts pressed against his satin evening coat, her thighs against his.
He kissed her lips tentatively and raised his head again to look down at her. "How could I not have known I loved you the first moment I saw you?" he said in wonder.
But he did not wait for her answer. He was too busy kissing her hungrily, his heart singing with the almost instant realization that he had been right about her inner passion. She was molten beneath the pressure of his hands, arched into his body, taut with the desire to be taken closer. There was nothing of the shrinking, timid virgin in her response to him. He opened his mouth over hers, nibbling at her lips with his teeth, ready to resume a more chaste kiss if she took alarm. But she moaned, wrapped her arms around his neck, and parted her lips beneath his. Algernon relaxed his control and responded to her surrender. Only the almost subconscious knowledge that the library door was wide open behind him kept the embrace from progressing completely beyond the bounds of propriety.
"There," he said against her hair a few minutes later. It smelled clean and fragrant. "Now you will have to marry me, Celia. Your honor has been quite hopelessly compromised. And would be much more so if only I had had the good sense to close the door when we came in here. God, how I want you."
"Algernon." She buried her face against the high starched collar of his shirt. "I am the most fortunate of women. I will always try to make you happy."
"There will be nothing easier, my love," he said. "You will not even have to try. But tell me: how are you planning to make me happy-as my wife? Is it too much to hope?"
"Oh." She jerked back her head and looked up at him. "I have not answered you, have I? The answer seems so obvious to me that it hardly needs to be stated. Yes, Algernon, of course I will marry you. Oh, of course I will. And what a wonderful dream this is. Usually one awakens just before the really good part."
Algernon chuckled. "I am afraid it is time to wake up for now," he said, "much as I regret having to do so. I seem to recall signing Miss Higgins' card for a set sometime after supper. And I have only just realized that the storm is still raging. What an unusually long time it is lasting."
"I had not noticed either," Celia said. "How safe I feel here with you, Algernon."
He hugged her to him once more. "Shall we keep our secret for a while?" he suggested. "Perhaps it would even be a good idea for you to return home as planned in two days' time. I shall follow after you within a few days so that I may talk with your father, as is only proper. Will he approve of me, do you think?"
"Oh, yes," she said. "Papa will love you." She giggled suddenly. "He will approve, anyway."
"I am going to work on making you laugh more often, Celia," Algernon said, lifting her hand and placing it formally on his sleeve before leading her back into the main hall. "You are quite hopelessly adorable when you do so. Not that I have an easy time resisting you even when you are as serious as a judge, mind you."
The wind was howling outside the cottage. Lightning was flashing and thunder crashing almost incessantly. At any moment the rain was going to lash down. Mr. Perkins and the children had come in from outside and had disappeared into the inner room, where the youngest children had been sleeping for some time. Mr. Perkins had hovered in the main room, it was true, looking down at his wife in acute distress, but when she tensed again against pain, he turned and almost staggered into the room with his mother and children. Only the two older daughters remained with David to tend their mother as best they could.
David was scarcely aware of any of these happenings. His starched collar had been shed long ago. The top button of his shirt was undone. His damp hair had been pushed back from his forehead so many times that it was thoroughly disheveled. His shirt and knee breeches, so carefully tended for the past few years so that they might last, were creased and stained.
He was sponging off Mrs. Perkins' hot face yet again with gentle hands. He was smiling down into her tired eyes.
"It should not be long now, should it?" he said. "Your mother-in-law has said that it is usually not long after the water has broken."
Thank goodness for that quavering and constant voice from the inner room, David thought. Without its direction he would not have even known about the breaking of the water before birth. He certainly would not have prepared for it by settling layers of rags over the mattress.
"It has never been this long, Reverend," Mrs. Perkins said. "I am sorry. I don't seem able to do anything to help you." And then she shut her eyes tightly and arched her back against yet another onslaught of pain.
Thank God it was this long, David thought, feeling a pang of guilt over wishing an extension to the agony of the poor woman before him. Would the midwife never come?
The swift knocking on the door that ensued seemed an answer to his prayer. David felt his shoulders sag with relief as one of the girls ran to open the door. Rain lashed against the window at the same moment, almost as if a giant hand had hurled a mammoth pailful of water against the cottage. But he did not turn. He was still clasping Mrs. Perkins' hand and murmuring soothing words to her, waiting for the now familiar signs of the subsiding of the pain.
"Oh," a breathless voice said from behind him, "just in time. I am so glad there was a light in your house still, Tess. I hope you do not mind my coming in."
David turned sharply, and his eyes met the startled glance of Rachel. She was dressed for the ball, with no cloak or bonnet. Her hair was blown into wild disarray.
"David?" she said. "What is it? Is someone sick? Oh. It is Mrs. Perkins' time?"
The voice of old Mrs. Perkins came from the inner room. "Is that you, my lady?" she called. "You had best come in here. That is no place for a young lady to be. I am afraid we are crowded, but you must have the chair."
"Where is the midwife?" Rachel asked, ignoring the voice. "Has she not been sent for?"
"She has been busy all day attending another birth," David said. "She is supposed to come as soon as she is able."
"But she will not come now," Rachel said. "Listen to that rain, David. And the wind. Travel will be impossible for several hours at least."
"Go into the other room, my lady," Mrs. Perkins said weakly. "Oh, Reverend, I'm so sorry." She began to gasp again, and David turned back to her.
"Please to go inside, my lady." Mr. Perkins had emerged from the inner room, looking rather like a ghost, Rachel thought. "I shall go and see to your horse."
Rachel stared guiltily as he opened the door and had it almost whipped from his hand. He disappeared outside. "David, do you have any experience in this?" Rachel asked when he had finished talking to Mrs. Perkins and was dabbing at her face with a cloth.
His soft laughter sounded genuinely amused. "It is not part of the training of a clergyman," he said, "though perhaps it should be. Go on into the other room now, Rachel."
"No," she said. "You need help. Let me do that, David."
She reached out a hand for the cloth, but he dropped it hurriedly into the bowl in order to take the hand of Mrs. Perkins, who, to Rachel's horror, turned rigid and even redder in the face. She began to moan and bite on her lower lip, which was already looking swollen and bruised.
"Let the sound out if you must," David was saying to her. "Scream if it will help. We will endure it, and the children have company."
Mr. Perkins had just come back in from outside, looking drenched to the skin.
Rachel dipped a finger into the bowl, found that the water was tepid, and hurried over with it to the pail that stood beside the door. By the time Mrs. Perkins had again relaxed, Rachel was back at her side with fresh cold water. She knelt and began to sponge off the hot, tired face and neck. She turned her head and smiled at the two young girls, who were hovering at the foot of the mattress, their eyes wide with tiredness and fright.
"Have you been helping?" she asked. "How very brave of you. I think you deserve a rest. Would you like to go in and join your grandmama or perhaps go up to the attic to lie down? I shall help the Reverend Gower now. I shall call if we need you. All right?"
Lil almost sagged with relief and even Tess put up no argument. They both disappeared up the ladder into the attic, taking no light with them. Indeed, they needed no light. The lightning was still almost incessant.
On old Mrs. Perkins' instructions and some weak affirming murmurs from her daughter-in-law, David had gathered up the remaining pile of dry cloths that the girls had set on a chair and brought them over to the bed. He and Rachel spread them in a thick layer on the mattress. A smaller pile was left beside the bed for wrapping the baby after the birth. Rachel stared at them and realized suddenly and for the first time exactly what was about to happen. But there was no time to panic. Mrs. Perkins was moaning beside her. Soon she would need the mercy of the cool cloth again.
Over the next hour Rachel forgot the storm, the imminence of birth, and all else in her efforts to relieve the mother's pain.
"It's time," the woman said at last with some urgency. Her breathing quickened. "It's time, Reverend. Where is the midwife?" The last words were almost screamed as Mrs. Perkins gripped the sides of the mattress and bore down against her pain.
David's eyes met Rachel's across the bed. He was looking very pale, she noticed, but not panic-stricken. He looked quite in charge of the situation. She forgot that he had no more experience than she with such an event. She looked calmly to him for instructions.
"Grip both of her hands, Rachel," he said, "so that she can push with more force. I will receive the baby. Mrs. Perkins senior has given me full instructions on how to proceed."
Rachel obeyed without question and watched quite calmly the preparations David made as surely as if he had delivered a hundred babies.
And then, quite unaware of the pain in her hands caused by Mrs. Perkins' viselike grip, she watched in growing wonder and awe the slow miracle of birth. And finally there was the moment when David held in his hands the tiny red and slippery child, and it cried without any encouragement to take its first breath. The newest Perkins boy had made his appearance.
Mrs. Perkins relaxed her hold on Rachel's hands and reached out her arms. She was laughing weakly, her whole attention focused on her son. "Oh, give him to me," she said.
Rachel reached for some warm cloths in a daze and wrapped them around the tiny, noisy little bundle before placing it in the mother's arms. As she crossed the room to fetch warm water in the bowl, she noticed with puzzlement that David was still busy. It was not over yet. Old Mrs. Perkins was calling instructions from the inner room, and the new mother was adding details.
And then it was all over and Rachel was able to take the baby in trembling hands, wash him off gently with the water, and wrap him in the remaining clean cloths before handing him again to his mother, who was covered up and smiling tiredly, her eyes following every move Rachel made with her precious bundle of humanity.
And then Rachel called in Mr. Perkins, and he came, pale and trembling, and stared down in humble timidity at his wife and son. David was beside the door washing off his hands and rolling down his shirtsleeves. Rachel followed him there. Their eyes met and held.
"David," she said. "Oh, David. How very wonderful." Her eyes were brimming with tears. Had she been able to see clearly, she would have seen that his were brighter than usual too.
Neither knew afterward whether he offered his arms or whether she came into them unbidden. But in his arms she was, and they leaned against each other, weak with the wonder of the miracle they had just witnessed and participated in to a small extent. He held her head against his damp shoulder and Rachel breathed in the smell of perspiration, surely more wonderful than any perfume at that moment.
"How very privileged I have been," he murmured against her hair. "Most men experience only the guilt of having caused their women's agony and then the pride of parenthood. I have seen the wonder of pain turned to joy, Rachel. How good our Lord has been to me."
"David," she said. "Oh, David." Foolish to say his name over and over again. But messages passed without the medium of words. They looked into each other's eyes eventually and smiled, a totally unself-conscious look of deep and mutual love.
Mr. Perkins had taken his new son into the inner room to be inspected by his grandmother, and Mrs. Perkins was shyly trying to attract the attention of her doctor and nurse. Now that it was all over, she was flustered and apologetic. It took all of David's gentle reassurances to restore her calm joy in what she had just accomplished.
David and Rachel spent the next couple of hours talking in low voices to old Mrs. Perkins and her son. The new mother was enjoying a well-earned sleep, and her new son had decided to cooperate. None of the other children had stirred during the excitement of the birth or afterward. The storm eventually passed over, and an hour later both David and Mr. Perkins thought that perhaps a vehicle as light as Lord Rivers' gig might be able to travel the road back to Oakland. David would drive Rachel. He would not hear of her going alone.
Lord Rivers' ball continued long after it was scheduled to finish. The music and the dancing went on until dawn, and then a surprisingly lively group of people crowded windows or ventured out onto the terrace, all trying to assess the probable state of the roads merely from viewing the rain-soaked cobbles and grass. It was certain that those who had traveled any distance would be foolish to think of returning home yet. Any weighty carriage would at the very least get hopelessly stuck in mud, and there was the added danger of upsetting in a pothole or skidding off the road and overturning into a ditch.
Lord Rivers' staff belowstairs was frantically busy preparing breakfast for a large number of people. The housekeeper and chambermaids were as busy abovestairs preparing beds for those guests who wished to rest while they waited. These were mostly ladies. The gentlemen prepared to settle quite happily to cards or billiards and fortifying bottles of port.
A few guests from the village and the party from Oakland decided to take the chance of returning home. The worst that could happen, Lord Mountford said cheerfully, was that they would have to walk a mile or two over wet grass until their carriages could be pulled out of the mud. His wife's comment that there were many worse fates that might befall them went unheeded. Lady Edgeley was anxious to return home to assure herself that Lady Rachel was safe and had not died of fright during the storm.
The stranded ballgoers were just finishing a very early breakfast sometime later when the butler opened the doors into the main dining room and Lords Edgeley and Mountford strode in. Algernon rose to his feet at once, his face paling.
"Has there been an accident?" he asked. "I trust no one has been hurt. What may we do to help, Edgeley?"
But the earl did not give the news that everyone expected. "It's Rachel," he said. "She is not at home and has not been there all night. Damn me for a fool. I should have sent someone after her to make sure she had arrived safely."
Algernon strode across the room through the sudden hubbub of voices. But being close to the two men from Oakland did not make the message any more palatable: Rachel was missing and had been missing since before the storm the night before. Algernon felt fear and near-panic churn his insides.
"I shall have all the servants gathered," he said, "to search the grounds and all the likely routes she might have taken last night. She had my gig. Her choice of route would have been limited. We can use as many of the gentlemen as consider themselves suitably dressed for such a search." He turned to the company, which had hushed again and was paying him close attention.
"All our servants are searching already," Lord Edgeley said. "I must go back there, Rivers. Lady Edgeley is frantic."
"Perhaps Lord Mountford could return to assure her that everything possible is being done here," Algernon said. "You and I should maybe call at the village to see if there is any sign of her there. Perhaps David will know something."
Lord Edgeley frowned. "Why would he know anything of her whereabouts?" he asked. "He was not even here last night."
Algernon did not answer. He had stridden from the room to have the butler summon all the menservants.
David and Rachel had started out from the cottage somewhat before dawn. Old Mrs. Perkins had lent Rachel a shawl to protect her bare arms from the chill that had succeeded the storm. Her delicate ball gown was looking sadly bedraggled.
David guided the horse slowly and carefully over the wet and muddy road. Even so, it soon became obvious that they had been precipitate in their decision to take to the road so soon after the rain stopped. They should have waited at least a couple of hours longer. It did not help that the sky was still cloudy and they could see no more than a few feet in front of them. Eventually they reached a fork in the road, one branch of which led to the village, a mile away, while the other led to Oakland, two miles distant. The road to Oakland was slightly uphill. David brought the gig carefully to a halt.
"I do not see how the horse is to get up that hill," he said. "He will have no traction for his feet. I believe we have a choice. Either we abandon horse and gig and walk across the fields to Oakland, or you come with me to the vicarage."
Rachel glanced down ruefully at her feet and wriggled her toes. "Across the fields in these slippers, David?" she said. "Ugh!"
"Then the vicarage it must be," he said. "It may not be a very proper solution, Rachel, but under the circumstances it will be excusable, I believe. Mrs. Saunders will be there to lend some propriety to your presence. And I shall walk to Oakland as soon as it is light to set everyone's mind at rest. I very much doubt that anyone will return home from Algie's until dawn at the earliest."
Rachel did not put up any protest. Indeed, sitting silently beside a tense David as he eased the horse into a slow progress again, she felt almost happy. It had been a magical night, a wonderful night, a night in which she had felt close to David in a way she could not possibly have imagined. And it had not yet ended. There was this adventure of a slow and dangerous journey over muddy roads and a few hours spent at the vicarage with David at the end of it. It did not even occur to her to worry about propriety. How could it be improper to be alone with a man with whom one had just shared the unimaginably intimate task of bringing a child into this world?
She stole a look at David's profile, only barely visible in the darkness. It was a strong, handsome profile. He looked thoroughly in charge of the situation, though she knew that he was tense with anxiety. She would, she realized, trust David with her life under the most difficult of circumstances. With anyone else at present she would probably be fighting hysterics. With David she was totally relaxed. She marveled at her own lack of fear.
"We are almost there," he said with quiet reassurance. "You are a good companion, Rachel. Most females would be in a fit of the vapors by now. You are hiding your fear very well."
"I am not afraid," she said calmly. "I am with you."
He grinned unexpectedly. "If you realized how very undependable I feel at the moment," he said, "perhaps you would not be so trusting."
"I would always trust you, David," she said. " 'Whither thou goest…' " But she broke off the quotation. She had meant it as a light joke, but it came out of her mouth sounding quite serious.
Neither said anything more until he lifted her down from her seat after taking the gig around to the back of the vicarage. He quickly untethered the horse and stabled it in the small building that had housed the horse of the former vicar. Then he led Rachel inside.
"You must be very tired," he said, lighting two candles in the kitchen. "You were wonderful tonight, Rachel. There are not many young ladies who would have done half of what you did. And all without any fuss or hysterics. Thank you for your help. I no longer felt afraid once you arrived."
"I don't believe there are many clergymen who would do what you did either, David," Rachel said with a smile. "I don't think the midwife could have given more tender care to the baby or the mother. You are a beautiful person. I am glad that I have known you."
He stood and smiled at her, at a small young lady in a soiled and crumpled ball dress with wildly disheveled dark hair and tired, shadowed eyes. She had never looked more beautiful. He wanted to say something to her, something tender and meaningful, something to heal the pain he had caused her. He wanted to open his arms to her and hold her as he had at the cottage a few hours before. He wanted to tell her how totally he loved her.
"Come," he said, picking up one of the candles, "I shall take you up to the room Mrs. Saunders always keeps ready for guests. You must sleep, Rachel. I shall stay down here until it is light and then walk to Oakland. Mrs. Saunders will see to your needs when you wake."
He led the way upstairs and into a square, neat room, and set the candle down on a dresser.
"Thank you," Rachel said rather bleakly as he turned to leave.
"Sleep well," he said, turning back to smile that gentle half-smile that could always make her weak with love for him. "Good night, Rachel. My friend."
Perhaps he thought it strange that she did not reply. She merely gave him a tiny smile as he let himself out of the room and shut the door quietly behind him. She could not have said anything. Why had those last two words broken her control as no other endearment could have done at that moment? Why did it seem infinitely more precious to be David's friend than even to be his lover? Rachel brushed impatiently at the tears that had spilled onto her cheeks, and glanced with longing at the bed. She began the difficult task of undoing the long row of tiny buttons that extended down her back.
Downstairs in his study, meanwhile, David sank into the worn chair beside the empty fireplace, hooked one leg over the arm, and proceeded to keep vigil until the coming of dawn.
"Whither thou goest..."
The words had been running through his head for days. He had always loved the Book of Ruth, but he had never been obsessed with it as he had been lately. He had never been so aware of the courage of a woman who could give up everything with which she was familiar, even her country and her religion, for the sake of love. Love for a mother-in-law, in Ruth's case. He still felt that the story should not have ended as it did. She should not have adjusted to her new life, met the rich and kindly Boaz, married him, and become the great-grandmother of a king. She should have been wrong. The story should have proved that one cannot totally change one's way of life and be happy.
Was he wrong about Rachel? He loved her so very dearly. He wanted her to be happy. He knew she was not happy now. Incredible as it seemed, she apparently did love him as much as he loved her. But he had thought he had the wisdom to look into the future. She would be far more unhappy than she was now, he had concluded, if he married her. She would discover that his life was not hers, and yet she would be forced into making it so as his wife. He had forced himself to watch her unhappiness now, knowing that he was protecting her from greater and lasting misery in the future.
But was he right? Who was he to say what was right for Rachel? A completely new way of life had worked for Ruth. And it had worked for him too, had it not? Who would have said just a few years before that he could live the type of life he was living now and be happy? He certainly would not have believed it possible. Was he God that he could decide Rachel's future for her?
David closed his eyes and laid his head against the back of the chair. Should he allow Rachel to make the choice? Should he allow her to decide whether to take him as he was or to continue with her present way of life? Would he be utterly selfish to do so, knowing that her answer would probably be yes? Or would he be showing her the ultimate love, giving her the freedom to choose her own life?
David passed a hand wearily across his forehead. He thought back to the previous morning, to the memories that had been almost too painful to face all of the previous day. Rachel had rejected him. He had offered her the respectability and security of his godmother's wealth and she had refused him. Yet it was not he whom she had rejected. She had been overjoyed when he had first offered her marriage. He could remember now the total surrender he had felt in her body as he had held her and kissed her.
It was the wealth and the security she had rejected. She wanted him. She did not want anything else.
And he realized for the first time the selflessness of her rejection. She had known that by accepting his compromise she would be taking from him everything that made his life meaningful. And everything that made her life meaningful too? He had seen her several times with the poor people of his parish. She had always seemed happy with them. And she had new ideas. She wanted to start a school. And there had been no mistaking her joy that night in the very unladylike scene she had witnessed and participated in.
Perhaps for Rachel too happiness lay in turning her back on the world with which she was familiar and devoting her life to the service of the poor. Perhaps. Who was he to say? It was a decision only she could make. She and her God.
He could not deny her that decision. He could not deny her the freedom to choose him if she wanted him. Or to reject him again. It must be her choice.
David slept just as dawn began to lighten the windows behind the drawn curtains.
Mrs. Saunders showed the visitors into the parlor, keeping her face expressionless despite the strange fact that the hour was very early and both gentlemen were dressed in evening clothes that had somehow lost their sparkle. She had been housekeeper to a vicar for long enough to know that all manner of people might arrive at the vicarage at any hour and in any garb. Matters had grown even worse with this new vicar, who would not turn back even the most suspicious of beggars from his door and whose fame had quickly spread through the world of vagabonds.
She sighed when she found the vicar's room empty and his bed unslept-in. He had set out for Lord Rivers' dinner and ball the evening before, but the Lord only knew where he had ended up. Holding the hand of some elderly person who was pretending to be at death's door just in order to have his company, more than likely. And the vicar would have fallen into the trap, as he had done on numerous occasions already. And would not even know that it had been a hoax until she informed him of the fact.
She checked the vicar's study halfheartedly and was surprised to find him fast asleep in his chair, one leg thrown over the arm, his head drooped forward on his chest, his best clothes-his only really respectable clothes, apart from his church vestments-looking as if they were ready for the rubbish heap. His hair-that lovely dark, thick, shiny hair that made her so proud of him on a Sunday morning when he stood in the pulpit- looked as if it might have been lifted straight from the head of a scarecrow.
Mrs. Saunders clucked her tongue and woke the vicar up.
Two minutes later a wide-awake and dismayed David rushed into the parlor without having made any attempt to tidy himself for his visitors.
"Lord Edgeley," he said, "your pardon, please. I fell asleep. How could I have done such a thing. Algie?"
"Rachel is missing," the earl said. He had not sat down. "You have not had any word of her, have you, Reverend?"
"Yes, indeed," David said. "She is asleep upstairs."
He knew as soon as he had said the words that the mistake he had made in falling asleep was a far more serious one even than he had first thought. For the few minutes since he had awoken, he had been concerned merely with the unnecessary worry he must have caused Rachel's parents. Only now did it strike him how dreadfully improper it must appear to the two guests to arrive at the house and find that both he and Rachel were sleeping in it. Somehow the presence of Mrs. Saunders in the same house did not add the respectability that he had mentioned to Rachel the night before.
Algernon turned without a word and stood looking out of the parlor window, legs slightly apart, hands clasped behind his back. The Earl of Edgeley stood very still.
"Lady Rachel came to the Perkinses' cottage last night just as the storm broke," David explained. "I happened to be there with Mrs. Perkins, trying to comfort her until the midwife arrived. Rachel had to help me deliver the baby, and then we set out for Oakland. But I am afraid we left too early. The uphill road to the house was far to dangerous under the circumstances. I brought her here."
The earl coughed. "I see," he said. "This is a devilish coil."
"I will gladly offer her the protection of my name if you consider her honor has been compromised, my lord," David continued quietly.
Algernon turned from the window. He was looking more grim than David had ever seen him. "I'll be damned before I see Rache forced into marriage out of any notion of honor. Begging your pardon, Edgeley. I shall offer for her myself. At least I can offer her a lifelong affection."
"I have my heart to offer, Algie," David said. "Very little else, I am afraid. But if his lordship is satisfied with respectable employment and Rachel with the devotion of my love, then I will offer her all I have to give."
Algernon searched his cousin's eyes for a few silent moments. He nodded finally. "Good luck then, David, my boy," he said.
The earl cleared his throat. "If only this whole incident were not quite so public," he said. "We have two housefuls of servants, my houseguests, and most of the guests at last night's ball out hunting for my daughter. There will be a scandal. I am going to leave the decision to Rachel, Reverend. Her mother and I will advise her that she need not feel herself compromised to the extent that she must marry you. We will be prepared to help her live down the gossip. Whether you will be able to live it down, sir, with those parishioners who demand total moral rectitude from their pastor, is a problem that you must face."
David bowed. "May I have the honor of calling on your daughter and paying my addresses this afternoon?" he asked.
When Rachel appeared in the doorway in a gown that looked even more crumpled than it had a few hours before as a result of the fact that she had just let it fall to the floor when she undressed, she was looking extremely ill-at-ease. Mrs. Saunders had told her that David had been sleeping in his study when her papa and Algie arrived. He had not gone at dawn, then, to explain the situation. Poor David. He must be feeling dreadfully guilty.
He was standing with his back to the fireplace opposite the doorway, looking pale, tired, and incredibly untidy. For once even his eyes were not smiling.
And then somehow she was in Algie's curricle with her papa while Algie took his gig from the back of the vicarage. And Papa was gravely advising her that her unwise behavior of the night before had put her in a very compromising situation but that she should not feel herself totally bound to accept Mr. Gower when he called on her that afternoon. There would be a nasty scandal, of course, and all their guests were to leave the following day to carry news of it to the far corners of the kingdom. But what was that to them? They would brave local opinion in the knowledge that scandals were quickly forgotten.
David was coming to offer her marriage! And all because road conditions had forced them to spend the night in the same building, albeit on different floors and with the added presence of a female housekeeper!
He was going to do the honorable thing and make an honest woman of her.
Over her dead body!
Rachel was not in the house when David called that afternoon. She was supposed to be. She had been excused by the countess from the ride that was to be the final daytime activity for the houseguests and sent to her room to get ready. Both Mama and Papa had explained to her that they would not try to force her to accept David's offer, but both had been insistent that she receive that offer with the proper decorum.
But she had slipped outside. She had been tempted to leave altogether, to walk up into the hills, or to go and visit the Perkinses. The urge to see the new baby was strong on her anyway. But she could not bring herself to be quite so openly disobedient. As it was, she had been roundly scolded-by both parents separately-for her irresponsible behavior of the night before.
She was sitting on the uphill slope north of the house, weaving an endless daisy chain. She was almost unaware that she did so, but she had to keep her hands busy. And her mind blank.
David found her there. She saw him come even though she did not look up from her task. Her heart turned over inside her, and she compressed her lips.
"Hello, Rachel," he said, stopping in front of her so that she was aware of the shiny worn leather of his top boots.
She had expected him to be very formal, rather as the Marquess of Stanford had been earlier that morning before he left, when he had explained that under the circumstances he thought it wise not to renew his offer.
"I do not wish to talk to you, David," she said, splitting the stem of a daisy with her fingernail and fitting another through it with great care. "It is only because Mama and Papa insisted that I am here at all. I do not wish to hear you offer me marriage just because the world will not believe that we could spend the night under one roof without also spending it in the same bed. I feel a little insulted, sir, though I suppose I must thank you for the sense of honor that has brought you here."
"Rachel." He stooped down on his haunches in front of her so that she became suffocatingly aware of his nearness. She joined the two ends of the chain. There were no more daisies to add unless she moved from her place. "It is not merely or mainly for that reason that I have come."
"And I will not live in Richmond with you, basking in the luxury of your inherited fortune," she said. "I will be totally insulted by such a proposal again."
"I don't blame you," he said quietly. "It was very wrong of me to make that offer to you yesterday. I beg your forgiveness. I did it because I love you and I want you. And I have always thought it a man's responsibility to protect the woman he loves from all harm and hardship. I love you, Rachel, and I have tried to protect your way of life even if you were unwilling to do so for yourself. I have not credited you with any mind of your own or any strength of character. I have been very wrong. Please forgive me. I erred out of love, not out of any malice."
"You think me frivolous, pampered, and empty-headed," she said. "You really do not know me at all, David. I have always been happiest living quietly here, visiting my friends at the cottages. I have never craved social pleasures. I sought them out this year merely because my education as a lady had taught me that that was what I should want."
"When your father came to the vicarage this morning," David said, "I realized the necessity of making this visit. But I would have been making it anyway, Rachel. Please believe me. You see, last night I accepted the fact that I love you and wish you to be my wife. I have very little to offer except my devotion. But I will offer you that. Your feelings and your response must be yours to decide. I can see all the reasons why you should not make such a match, but the decision is not mine. It is yours. And I am yours, Rachel, if you will have me."
"Not in Richmond," she whispered, looking up at him for the first time.
"Here," he said. "We would stay here."
"And not with that fortune to buy me clothes and jewelry," she said. ›
"I have rejected my godmother's legacy, Rachel," he said.
"And you must not guard my dowry to spend on me," she said. "You must spend it as you do the money you earn."
He reached for her hand. "We will be very poor, dear," he said.
"No, we will not," she said, grasping his hand tightly. "We will not, David. You do not really believe so and neither do I. 'Consider the lilies of the field.' "
He smiled into her eyes. "You are quite right," he said. "We will be the wealthiest family in the parish. You see what beautiful jewels you will wear?" He took the daisy chain from her lap and looped it twice about her neck. "I will give you gifts of daisies, Rachel. Will you marry me?"
"Yes, I will, David," she said, her eyes shining into his as she put her arms up around his neck. "And you will teach me to make the adjustments to a new way of life. For I know I will find it difficult even though I know equally well that I will be able to do it and that I will be happy."
"And you will teach me to be joyful and trusting," he said. "To trust other people's strength as well as my own. You are a strong person, Rachel. You will be a better wife than I deserve. I love you so very dearly."
"Kiss me," she said, tightening her arms around him. "Before we go to find Mama and Papa and before we go to visit and admire the newest Master Perkins, kiss me. And I really do not think there is any hurry, for everyone else has gone riding, you see, except Lord and Lady Mountford. So Mama and Papa have nothing to do except relax and wait for us to come. And I will have plenty of time later to tell you Celia and Algie's news. They are going to be married, you know, and I am very delighted for both of them. They will suit, do you not chink?"
David's arms had closed around her so that they knelt together on the grass, clasped in each other's arms.
"The first thing I remember about you is your prattling," he said, smiling at her, his lips beginning to tease hers. "On Bond Street. I shall enjoy it for a lifetime, dear, I swear I will, provided only that you control the urge when you have asked me to kiss you."
"Oh, yes, of course I will," she said, her lips responding to the teasing of his. "David. Oh, David, have I told you how much I love you?"
"Mm," he said. "Tell me later. As many times as you wish, dear. But much later."
"Yes," she said, "much, much later, David, if you please. Mmmm."