Authors: Aileen Fish
Charming the Vicar’s Daughter
A Bridgethorpe Brides novel
CHARMING THE VICAR’S DAUGHTER
Copyright © 2014 Aileen Fish
All rights reserved.
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This book is a work of fiction. With the exception of historical figures, any resemblance it bears to reality is entirely coincidental.
For Samantha and Jane, without whose help this story would never have been finished. You girls are the best!
Bridgethorpe Village, Cheshire, England
Neil Harrow was ready to cross the final item off his checklist. Once his cousin found him the proper pair of carriage horses, Neil could journey to London. There awaited the curricle he’d ordered with red wheels and leather squabs, thus forming the need for said horses. He was beyond eager to take up residence in the rooms he’d leased in Albany House.
His cousin, David Lumley, had other things on his mind. Neil had never seen him so distracted. Insisting they stop in the village before arriving at Bridgethorpe Manor, David had practically leaped from the carriage as it rolled to a halt in front of the vicar’s cottage. “I won’t be long,” he called out, slamming the carriage door behind him.
Neil shook his head, feeling no better than a servant in the way his cousin neglected to invite him to go along. Looking out the window at the village, he plucked at the seam of his gloves where the threads had worn thin. Now was as good a time as any to look for a new pair.
He opened the door and stepped out, grateful to be on unmoving ground after three days of travel from Fernleigh Stud in Newmarket. They had slept in inns along the way, but those beds were never as comfortable as his at home. The air was crisp, clear, as if winter hadn’t fully given up despite the narcissus bulbs coming into bloom along the vicar’s walkway.
Neil walked up the road a short distance, grateful for the recent lack of rain that made for a dry road. The shops were on the main street, not far from the vicar’s cottage, and he soon had a new pair of riding gloves as well as some cotton evening gloves the proprietor assured him were all the rage in London. Taking his package, along with the sack of peppermint drops for his cousins, he began to walk back toward the carriage. As he strolled, he heard a voice from nearby. A sweet, cajoling, very feminine voice.
“Come, you minx. Be a dear and come into my arms.”
Neil paused, his attention fully engaged. He should leave the lovers to themselves, but the voice was like a siren’s call. She continued to utter small cooing sounds, each sound causing his imagination to summon the most delightful vision. Curiosity won out over the lovers’ need for privacy, and he stepped through a break in the hedgerow to take a closer look.
A ladder leaned against a bare black poplar tree, and the owner of that lovely voice stood high on its rungs, reaching into the branches. The object of her entreaty sat just beyond her reach. A brown tabby, its expression more bored than frightened, yawned and stretched out a single paw.
It wasn’t the scene he expected to find, to be sure.
The young woman’s boots were barely perched on the ladder rung, and her petticoat peeked beneath the hem of her skirts, delicate lace edging and all. “Minxy, come, kitty.”
She looked ready to topple the ladder. Neil’s gut tightened with each stretch of her arm, certain she would fall. He couldn’t stand by and allow that to happen. He approached the ladder. “Might I be of assistance?”
The slender young woman didn’t even deign to look his way. “Thank you, no, I’m not in need of help.” She reached up higher, fingers wiggling at the cat.
Rather than resting his eyes on her derriere, Neil studied her boots, which were even with his chest. Worn, but well made, they most likely didn’t belong to a servant. He looked around but saw no maid chaperoning the young lady. She must live in one of the nearby cottages. Her precarious, leaning perch concerned him. “It’s no trouble, I assure you. I can climb up there and bring him down.”
She didn’t budge. “
. Minx is a she. And she doesn’t care for men.”
“Ah, forgive me.” He glanced at the cat, his lack of sleep making him rather silly at the moment. “My apologies, Miss Minx, for mistaking your sex. If you’ll come down, I shall buy you a saucer of cream.”
Now the lady pivoted, offering him a look that questioned his sanity. “I thank you for your offer, but I must insist you leave, or my cat will never come down.”
He couldn’t walk away from a woman standing on a ladder. Yet the cat looked comfortable enough to remain in place until summer. “Will you allow me to fetch a servant? A maid, perhaps, to climb the tree for you? Or a large footman to catch you when you fall?”
Her eyes no longer questioned his hold on reality. “Is this some manner of flirtation you employ? Your time is wasted on me. Be on your way.”
The boredom he’d sought to relieve melted away. Like the dish of sugarplums Cook kept from his reach when he was a boy, conversation with this young lady became too tempting to resist. “My time is mine to waste. I cannot be on my way until my cousin returns, so I might as well bide the moments here as anywhere.”
The girl squinted as she studied him. “Who is your cousin?”
“Mr. Lumley. His family lives nearby.”
“Ah, now I see who you are, and I understand. Will you badger me until I relent and let you play the gallant hero?”
Neil tipped his head at that news. Which of his cousins would be annoyingly persistent like that? Sam and Trey were both of an age to flirt with a young lady such as this, who appeared close to Neil’s twenty four years. Did either of them have an affection for her? She was more than pleasant to look upon, even with a frown marring her smooth peach-tinted skin. The brim of her beribboned hat shaded her eyes, but they were dark, like the curls framing her face. A beauty, she was. He suddenly needed to know if she was married. “I do not wish to badger you. Say the word and I shall summon your husband to play hero for you.”
Her expression went bland. “I do not seek a hero. I only wish to be left to my own devices. Will you kindly be on your way?”
So, she was a worthy adversary, all the better. “I could not bear to later hear a young miss had died of a broken neck because no one had helped her fetch her kitten from a tree.”
She continued to gaze on him with no humor.
He grinned, unable to control the lengths to which he would go to relieve boredom. “Have those Lumley boys been a complete nuisance? Which one was it? I’ll take him to task. Knightwick and David are too old for shenanigans, which leaves Trey and Sam. Give me a name and he’ll bother you no more.”
After a long pause, she said, “Are you quite finished? I would like to retrieve my cat and get on with my day.”
Neil held his hands out at his side. “Do not let me delay you, Miss…”
She ignored his implied request for her name and turned on the ladder. She stretched her arm out again, leaning precariously to the right as she did.
Neil took a step closer to her, lifting his arms at the ready. Whether he thought to catch the cat or the woman, he wasn’t certain.
Minx looked at him, then at her owner, and rose, hopping over the woman’s outstretched hand, bouncing off a branch, and leaping at Neil’s head.
He ducked, but not soon enough to avoid the claws scraping his cheek as the cat flew past. He brought a hand to his cheek, and glanced up again just in time to see the woman lose her balance on the ladder.
Neil dove as she fell, only succeeding in placing himself beneath her before they both landed in the dead grass with a
. His lungs deflated. Her weight, insubstantial as it was, kept him from inhaling.
“Oh, dear,” the miss on top of him moaned. As she shifted, she dug an elbow into his ribs.
He groaned with what little air remained inside him.
The lady rose on her arms, peering down at him with a wrinkled brow. “Are you all right? Your face is bleeding.” She touched her fingertips to his cheek, then prodded his head in search of lumps.
His skin burned at her touch. Her position, perched as she was now at his side and leaning over him, was suggestive of an exchange far beyond the flirtation he’d planned. Yet she wasn’t seducing him. Her concern for his injury seemed to prevent her from realizing just where she was. Where they lay.
A gravelly voice called out to them. “Miss Cookson, you should be ashamed!”
The young lady jerked, her eyes widening and her mouth forming a perfect O.
Neil closed his eyes and bit back a curse.
“Only steps away from the vicarage,” added a squeaky voice.
Groaning, Neil rolled away from the lady—Miss Cookson—and climbed to his feet, dusting off his breeches and sleeves. He held out his hand to assist her.
Miss Cookson jumped up without his aid. “Mrs. Carlyle, Mrs. Benjamin, how lovely to see you. You’re mistaken about our actions, however.” She motioned toward the ladder. “This gentleman was helping me get Minx from the tree.”
The short, round one of the pair shaded her eyes and looked upward. “He did a marvelous job, I see, as Minx is no longer trapped. But I question your display of gratitude.”
“You misunderstand,” Neil jumped in. “Miss Cookson lost her balance, and I wasn’t able to catch her. We both fell to the ground.”
“Where is Minx?” The second woman, who was nearly as tall as Neil and half his healthy girth, had her hands on her narrow hips as she glared at the two young people.
Miss Cookson looked around. “I don’t know, Mrs. Benjamin. He jumped down and scratched—” She turned to Neil. “I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
Over the gasps of the two old women, Neil introduced himself. “Neil Harrow, at your service. My cousin, David Lumley, wished to have a word with the vicar. I was biding my time while I waited.”
At that, the two women lit up, smiles stretching wide. Mrs. Benjamin spoke first. “You’re a nephew of Bridgethorpe’s? How lovely. Miss Cookson, you never told us you were courting a member of the earl’s family.”
“I am not courting anyone, ma’am. You heard me ask the gentleman his name.”
Mrs. Carlyle patted Miss Cookson’s hand. “Never worry, dear, we shall keep your secret. We love secrets, don’t we, Milly?”
A third sharp voice rang out from the direction of the vicarage. “Secrets? Milly, Ursula, what is amiss? You must tell me what I missed.”
Miss Cookson bit her lip and closed her eyes as the two women bustled off to greet their friend. With heads bent and voices low, they spoke, occasionally glancing at Neil and the young lady. Then they hurried away.
“This is not going to end well.” Miss Cookson sighed and straightened her bonnet. “I had better go see if my father has finished speaking with Mr. Lumley so I might explain the situation before he hears it from the Widow’s League.”
Neil fell into step beside her, cringing at the realization of who had been discovered practically lying atop him. The vicar’s daughter. Neil would have to do some explaining of his own.
Rebecca Cookson brushed the twigs and dried grass from her pale mustard gown as she hurried up the path to her home. Her father’s baritone rang out though the closed window of his study, telling her Mr. Lumley was still visiting. Father never yelled, but always spoke as if he needed to be heard in the heavens.
As she reached the front door, she remembered Mr. Harrow, who had followed her. “Would you care to wait for your cousin inside?”
He nodded. “Perhaps I should speak to your father to explain the misunderstanding. Those ladies seemed determined to spread some gossip.”
She smiled, hoping it appeared comforting and not as terrified as she felt, and stepped inside. “There is no need for you to become further involved. He’s used to the Widow’s League trying to marry me off. I can manage my father on my own.”
His thin, brown brows drew together and his lips pursed. “Are you certain? I am willing to own my part in the mishap. I don’t want to cause you any distress.”