Authors: Sarah M. Eden
Tags: #emotion, #past, #Courage, #Love, #Historical, #truth, #Trials, #LDS, #transform, #villain, #Fiction, #Regency, #lies, #Walls, #Romance, #Marriage, #clean, #attract, #overcome, #widow
Cover image: Photographer Woman in Forest © Susan Fox/Trevillion Images
Cover design copyright © 2014 by Covenant Communications, Inc.
Author Photo copyright © 2014 by Claire Waite Photography
Published by Covenant Communications, Inc.
American Fork, Utah
Copyright © 2014 by Sarah M. Eden
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any format or in any medium without the written permission of the publisher, Covenant Communications, Inc., P.O. Box 416, American Fork, UT 84003. The views expressed within this work are the sole responsibility of the author and do not necessarily reflect
the position of Covenant Communications, Inc., or any other entity.
This is a work of fiction. The characters, names, incidents, places, and dialogue are either products of the author’s imagination, and are not to be construed as real, or are used fictitiously.
To Jonathan, my “Corbin,”
so quiet, so good and kind, and too often unaware of your worth.
Know that you are loved just exactly as you are.
Corbin Jonquil knew he really ought to be listening to the sermon. That was the point of attending church, after all. Of late, he seldom heard a single word the vicar uttered—not since Mrs. Bentford had joined the congregation. Mrs. Bentford, a widow of no more than twenty-two or twenty-three, possessing more than her share of beauty and a sizable enough portion to have purchased a more-than-respectable cottage nearby, had taken the neighborhood quite by storm only a few months earlier.
Rumors abounded regarding the latest addition to the very small circle of families surrounding the minuscule town of Grompton. Some claimed she had been married to a nabob with more fortune than status. Others believed she had possessed a fortune of her own and married a man beneath her for love. Nothing, however, raised greater speculation than her children.
Mrs. Bentford had two: a boy and a girl. Her son appeared to be six or seven years old and looked absolutely nothing like his mother. Her daughter appeared to be about three years old and her mother’s exact copy in miniature. The neighborhood alternately labeled her son a stepchild, a product of her husband’s first marriage, or a ward left to her by a distant relative. For a lady of twenty-two to have a seven-year-old son required her to have become a mother at the almost unmarriageable age of fifteen. Naturally, the neighborhood was agog with speculation.
Corbin’s curiosity arose for entirely different reasons. Two months earlier, during an errand in Grompton, Mrs. Bentford had crossed his path. Corbin had raised his hat as she’d passed. She had looked directly at him and smiled. In that brief moment, she had stolen his heart.
Corbin had sat behind Mrs. Bentford and her children every Sunday since, watching the young family and thinking of hundreds of things he might say to her.
Good morning. Good day. That is a lovely bonnet.
Inevitably, when services came to an end, Corbin watched her leave without uttering a single word.
He was watching her again. She didn’t wear black or even gray, so her husband had, apparently, been gone for at least a year. That meant the little girl with hair the color of browned bread likely had hardly known her father. Corbin wondered if that was a tragedy or a blessing—he’d known fathers who fell under both categories.
The tiny Miss Bentford turned her head quickly, looking at Corbin out of the corner of her eye. The two of them played a game each Sunday. Corbin could not recall how it had begun, but he looked forward to it every week.
Little Miss Bentford looked at him again, not quite as quickly. Corbin smiled at her, and she turned her head forward once more. Three more times she looked back, and each time, Corbin managed to look surprised to find her looking at him.
The third time, the little girl began to giggle. Corbin laid his finger against his lips, reminding her to be quiet in church. She bit her lip and nodded, but her eyes danced with mirth. Corbin smiled, thoroughly pleased.
Mrs. Bentford bent toward her daughter, whispering something in her ear. The little girl smiled once more at Corbin, then turned to face the vicar. Mrs. Bentford, however, turned and, out of the corner of her eye, looked at Corbin.
He felt his breath catch. It was pathetic, really, being so aware of a lady who was entirely unaware of him. Being caught encouraging that lady’s daughter to misbehave in church proved particularly embarrassing.
Corbin managed what he hoped was an apologetic smile. Mrs. Bentford quickly returned her gaze to the front, but Corbin thought, hoped, he saw a hint of a smile on her face as she turned.
What if she thinks I’m an idiot?
Corbin had asked one of his brothers that question not a month earlier.
You’re a Jonquil
, Layton had answered.
Of course she’ll think you’re an idiot.
Not the most encouraging brotherly advice.
He tried to think of something he might say to her.
I am sorry for encouraging your daughter to giggle.
No, that wouldn’t do.
Your daughter is very pretty.
You are very pretty.
The services came to a close before Corbin managed to think of anything suitable. They had not been formally introduced, so the chance of having a conversation with her was remote at best. The entire neighborhood knew Mrs. Bentford kept to herself. Corbin did not even know if anyone among the worshipers could be counted on to offer an introduction.
Mrs. Bentford’s daughter, it seemed, was unaware of the social conventions. She stood on the pew and turned to face Corbin. She whispered loudly enough for Corbin to easily hear her. “I saw you,” she enthusiastically told him.
Corbin nodded, fighting down a blush. Why was it he colored like a schoolgirl whenever he was spoken to?
“We quiet,” she added.
He nodded again.
“Alice,” Mrs. Bentford interrupted the one-sided conversation. She turned those green eyes on Corbin, and he only barely managed to not stare. “I am sorry she has been disturbing you, sir.”
She spoke to him. Mrs. Bentford actually spoke to him. She never had before.
“No, not . . . not at all,” Corbin said, then felt like a complete imbecile for stumbling over a simple reply.
Mrs. Bentford smiled at him, much the same way she had that afternoon in Grompton. Any words that might have sprung to mind at that very opportune moment dissipated as he stood there, entranced.
“Good day,” Mrs. Bentford offered, then took both of her children by the hand and made her way out of the church.
He’d missed the perfect opportunity.
Good day, Mrs. Bentford.
How do you do?
He might have said any number of things. His brother Layton was apparently right: Jonquils were idiots.
Corbin nodded mutely to a few familiar faces as he stepped out of the Grompton chapel. His eyes immediately found Mrs. Bentford. A small group had gathered around and appeared to be peppering her with attempts at conversation. Her son clutched her hand as though it were his last remaining lifeline. Alice, her daughter, hovered nearby, not nearly as intimidated as her brother but with the same lack of enthusiasm over the gathering of strangers.
Not one of the Bentfords appeared pleased with the situation.
I should extricate them
, Corbin thought. He would probably make a spectacle of himself.
Mrs. Bentford attempted to work her way backward out of the crowd. They were closing ranks—she would never make it.
Corbin clutched his prayer book in his right hand.
. After a fortifying breath, he stepped to the edge of the group. He smiled an apology before elbowing past the portly Mr. Chambers.
“Mrs. Bentford,” Corbin managed to get out without hesitation or a stutter.
She turned her head and looked at him. There was no panic in her eyes but an air of calm. If her grip on her children hadn’t been white-knuckled, Corbin might have thought she had no need of assistance.
You left this.
Did you leave this?
Corbin fluctuated a moment. But everyone was looking at him, expectantly. “I think we”—he paused long enough to execute a much-needed swallow—“have one another’s prayer books.”
He stood stiff and uncomfortable. A great many people watched him.
Mrs. Bentford looked confused for the briefest of moments before understanding settled in her eyes. “Might we step aside for a moment and remedy this mishap?” she suggested.
Corbin nodded. He probably should offer her his arm, but suddenly, it was all he could do to simply walk.
Mrs. Bentford offered a quick good day to those nearest her as she made her way through the group.
You seemed anxious to be away from the crowd.
He’d never get that out whole.
The citizens of Grompton can be very curious.
She already knew that.
They reached the edge of the churchyard, far enough from the curious crowd for a modicum of comfort. Mrs. Bentford looked up at Corbin expectantly. She had green eyes. He’d noticed before, but they were still mesmerizing.
“The prayer books,” she hinted.
“Oh, I, uh.” Corbin stumbled over the words once more. “I didn’t actually—” He stopped for a breath, frustrated with himself. He ought to have thought through this conversation more.
“I know it was a ruse, sir,” Mrs. Bentford filled in his explanation. “One that, I assure you, is appreciated. But if we do not exchange books, the curious onlookers will realize the deception.”
Corbin nodded. He held his prayer book out to her. She accepted it and gave him hers.
Switch them back next Sunday. Switch them back next Sunday.
“Switch them—around again next—later.”
“The vicar and his wife are coming to Ivy Cottage for tea on Thursday at two o’clock,” Mrs. Bentford said, her tone still quite calm and collected. “If you would like to come then, we could be properly introduced.”
Corbin felt a touch of color rise in his cheeks. Social conventions dictated he should not have spoken to her until the appropriate introductions had been undertaken. He’d gone about this completely wrong. “Forgive me,” he muttered.
“Your rescue was quite well executed,” Mrs. Bentford said. “Thank you.” She turned to her children. “Alice. Edmund.”
Alice appeared to barely hold back a giggle. Edmund kept his head low and his hand desperately wrapped around his mother’s.
“Good day,” Mrs. Bentford said to Corbin.
All he managed was something that sounded horribly like a gurgle.
The moment Mrs. Bentford left the churchyard, Corbin slapped his hat against his thigh. He’d muddled it, just as he knew he would. He was no orator. He could seldom even form coherent sentences.
Thursday at two o’clock.
Corbin repeated that to himself as he rode home to Havenworth. He had four days to rehearse a few sentences, to go through the most likely topics of conversation. Perhaps he could manage to not make an utter fool of himself . . . but he seriously doubted four days would be enough.
“No, Alice,” Clara said for what felt like the hundredth time in ten minutes.
“I want to stay,” Alice said with an almighty pout.
“I am sorry, dearest.” Clara spoke slowly to keep from snapping. “As I told you, you must take your nap while Mama’s visitors have their tea.”
“No nap,” Alice said once again.
“Yes nap,” Clara answered firmly.
“No.” Alice nodded decisively.
Clara wished she could blame Alice’s stubbornness on Mr. Bentford, but Clara was every bit as stubborn as he had been. She’d had to be.
“Suzie will have milk and cakes with you and Edmund before your nap,” Clara said.
Alice pulled a face.
Clara took two long, deep breaths and attempted to regain her calm. She was not usually so short on patience.
The past few days had been trying. Why she had invited an unfamiliar gentleman to tea was absolutely beyond her. Since she did not even know the gentleman’s identity—he hadn’t written his name anywhere in his prayer book—there had been absolutely no way of canceling the invitation. She was at loose ends over it.
She took Alice’s hand and led her up the stairs. Alice continued to declare her intention to stay but went willingly enough. Thank heavens the girl was tired. Alice could be difficult to physically subdue. She could throw a fit unmatched in nature when she chose.
Clara, still holding Alice by the hand, found Edmund precisely where she’d expected to find him: in a chair in his room with his nose in a book. The boy was forever reading. The only outdoor pursuit he had ever shown any interest in was horseback riding. Mr. Bentford had never been willing to part with the funds for a pony, and Clara certainly hadn’t the funds now. They lived comfortably at Ivy Cottage and could continue to do so, but there was not enough for a pony or horse.
“It is time for a break, Edmund.”