Also by Julia London
Talk of the Ton
(with Eloisa James, Rebecca Hagan Lee, and Jacqueline Navin)
(with Deirdre Martin, Annette Blair, Geri Buckley)
The Vicar’s Widow
InterMix Books, New York
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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. The publisher does not have control over and does not have any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
THE VICAR’S WIDOW
An InterMix Book / published by arrangement with the author
Berkley Sensation edition / 2009
InterMix eBook edition / March 2013
Copyright © 2005 by Julia London.
copyright © 2006 by Julia London.
Cover design by Sarah Oberrender.
Victorian-era Beauty photo © iStockphoto/Thinkstock.
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On the chilly December night that Darien, Lord Montgomery, hosted a holiday soiree in honor of his sister’s recent nuptials, some happy culprit seasoned the cranberry punch with an entire bottle of gin.
The crime was established quite early when the offending bottle was found, sans contents, beneath the sideboard where the punch was being served. Or rather,
been served, as it had proven to be a popular refreshment.
Any and all would acknowledge that it wasn’t entirely unusual for a little sauce to be covertly added to the punches at lively affairs in Mayfair’s finest homes—particularly when the invitation list included some of the
’s most notorious revelers—but it was unusual for the
’s least-likely revelers to be in attendance, and on this night, the results of mixing those two crowds with a little gin proved to be . . . well, interesting.
Particularly for Montgomery. Not that he’d been among the revelers to have overindulged in the punch (more was the pity), but because he’d been occupied with tending to the comfort of his nearly one hundred guests, as well as ensuring that his good friend, Lord Frederick (otherwise known as Freddie), did not scandalize
young lady beneath the mistletoe as he seemed bent on doing.
In light of that, it was an ironic twist that Darien himself would be the one to do the scandalizing.
In hindsight, he could not begin to describe how it might have all happened, other than to note that he did indeed own a reputation for being something of a notorious bachelor. His favorite activity, after all, was women—flirting, seducing, making love—followed closely by hunting and equestrian sports. He was not, in his own estimation, the sort of chap to pass up an opportunity to gaze at a young lady’s décolletage or take a kiss . . . or more, were the lady so inclined.
evening, he had enough to do just playing host.
All right, then, to be fair—he had indeed made a trip or two to one of half a dozen sprigs of mistletoe he had hanging about the grand salon of the old Montgomery mansion on Audley Street, both times hoping to catch the vicar’s wife below it.
Oh yes, he’d certainly noticed the vicar’s young wife, along with every other man in attendance. How could he not? She was lovely. She had a glow about her, the sort of complexion one associated with the good health of country folk. With her pretty green eyes and reddish blond hair, she was quite remarkably pretty, especially when compared to the pale-skinned debutantes who stocked the streets and parlors of London.
But the most remarkable thing about the vicar’s wife was her vivacious smile. When she spoke, her eyes sparkled with enthusiasm. When she smiled, it seemed as if her entire body and those around her were illuminated with the brilliance of it. That smile was the one thing that compelled Darien to attend Sunday services each week, and not, as he had professed, the vicar’s rousing sermons.
And Darien imagined that lovely smile was what caused the good vicar, Richard Becket, to return last spring from his annual trek home to Bishop’s Castle in Shropshire, quite unexpectedly, with a wife. Darien would have been sorely tempted to do the same, had he been in the vicar’s shoes.
This December night, she arrived dressed in a deep green velvet gown that was the exact color of her eyes, and Darien could not seem to keep from looking at her. As the evening wore on, and the guests grew livelier (thanks to their gin-soaked libations), her smile seemed to grow brighter, warmer, and on more than one occasion, it seemed to be aimed directly at him.
But Darien lost track of her altogether when Lady Ramblecourt had a nasty encounter with a chair, after which, having observed that fiasco, what with the wailing and whatnot, the natives began to root about for more of the punch. Darien’s butler, Kiefer, was nowhere to be seen, so Darien hastened to the wine cellar to bring up more gin, lest he have a mutiny on his hands.
He was quite pleasantly surprised to find Mrs. Becket on the lower floor, propped up against one side of the stone wall that formed the narrow corridor leading to the cellar stairs, fanning herself. She glanced up when he landed on the last step and smiled prettily.
“Oh, my Lord Montgomery!” she demurred, her gloved hands fluttering near her face. “I pray you will forgive me, but I found it necessary to seek a cool and quiet place for a time.”
She did seem rather flushed. “You are more than welcome to any inch of my house, madam,” he said sincerely, clasping his hands behind his back. “Or my orangery, or my livery. Whatever you desire, you may have, Mrs. Becket.”
She laughed lightly and pushed a loose strand of that glorious red-gold hair that hung across her eye. “How gallant ! You are too kind,” she said, and closed her eyes.
“Are you quite all right, Mrs. Becket?”
She opened one eye. “Do I seem unwell?” she asked, wincing a bit. “I’m afraid I might have drunk too much of your delicious punch.”