Read No Man's Mistress Online

Authors: Mary Balogh

No Man's Mistress (2 page)

“I believe it is
your
straw bonnet that is lying on the back pew of the church,” Mr. Claypole continued.

“Ah,” she said, “so
that
is where I left it, is it?”

“It should be protecting your complexion from the harmful rays of the sun,” he said with gentle reproof.

“So it should,” she agreed, finishing her tea and getting to her feet. “If you will excuse me, sir, I see that the fortune-teller is setting up her booth at last. I must go and see that she has everything she needs.”

But Mr. Claypole would not have recognized a dismissal if it had doubled up into a fist and collided with his nose. He rose too, bowed, and offered his arm. Viola took it with an inward sigh of resignation.

Actually, the fortune-teller was already doing a brisk business, as Viola had been able to see from across the green. What she had also noticed, though, was that the stranger had strolled over to the throwing booth, which had been popular with the young men earlier in the afternoon. He was talking with Jake Tulliver, the blacksmith, when Viola and Mr. Claypole drew near.

“I was about to close down the booth, seeing as how we have run out of prizes,” Jake said, raising his voice to address her. “But this gentleman wants a try.”

“Well, then,” she said gaily, “we will have to hope he does not win, will we not?”

The stranger turned his head to look at her. He was indeed tall, almost a full head taller than she. His eyes were almost black. They gave his handsome face a somewhat dangerous look. Viola felt her heartbeat quicken.

“Oh,” he said with quiet assurance, “I
will
win, ma'am.”

“Will you?” she asked. “Well, there is nothing so very surprising about that. Everyone else has won too, almost without exception. Hence the embarrassing lack of prizes still to give away. I daresay the targets were set too close. We must remember that next year, Mr. Tulliver.”

“Set them back twice as far,” the stranger said, “and I will still win.”

She raised her eyebrows at the boast and looked at the metal candlesticks—the old set from the church vestry—which had been toppling all too readily before the ball the contestants had been hurling at them.

“Are you sure?” she asked. “Very well, then, sir, prove
it. If you win—four out of the five must fall with just five throws, you understand—then we will return your money. It is the best we can do. All of today's proceeds go to the vicar's charities, you see, so we cannot afford to offer cash prizes.”

“I will pay twice the entry fee,” the stranger said with a grin that made him look both reckless and boyish. “And I will knock all five candlesticks down at twice their present distance. But I must insist upon a prize, ma'am.”

“I believe we might safely offer the church spire without fear of denuding the church,” she said. “It cannot be done.”

“Oh, it can and will,” he assured her, “if the prize is to be those daisies you wear above your ear.”

Viola touched them and laughed. “A valuable prize indeed,” she said. “Very well, sir.”

Mr. Claypole cleared his throat. “You will permit me to point out that wagers are inappropriate to what is essentially a church fête, sir,” he said.

The stranger laughed into Viola's eyes, almost as if he believed it was she who had spoken.

“Let us make sure that the church benefits well from this wager, then,” he said. “Twenty pounds for the church whether I win or lose. The lady's daisies for me if I win. Move back the targets,” he instructed Jake Tulliver, while he set a few banknotes down on the booth counter.

“Miss Thornhill.” Mr. Claypole had taken her by the elbow and was speaking earnestly into her ear. “This will not do. You are drawing attention to yourself.”

She looked about to see that indeed people who had been awaiting their turn outside the fortune-teller's booth and had overheard the exchange were beginning to gather around. And their interest was attracting more. A number of people were hurrying across the green toward
the throwing booth. The gentleman was removing his coat and rolling up his shirtsleeves. Jake was repositioning the candlesticks.

“This gentleman has donated twenty pounds to the vicar's fund,” Viola called gaily to the gathering crowd. “If he knocks down all five candlesticks with five throws of the ball, he will win…my daisies.”

She gestured toward them and laughed with the crowd. But the stranger, she saw, did not. He was rolling the ball in his hands, concentrating on it, and squinting ahead to the candlesticks, which now looked an impossible distance away. He could not possibly win. She doubted he could knock over even one.

But one toppled over even as she was thinking it, and the crowd applauded appreciatively.

Jake handed the stranger the ball again, and he concentrated on it as before. A hush fell on the gathered crowd, which had swelled even more in size.

A second candlestick teetered, looked as if it were about to right itself, and fell with a clatter.

At least, Viola thought, he had not totally humiliated himself. He looked more than handsome in his shirtsleeves. He looked…well, very male. She desperately wanted him to win his bet. But he had set himself a nearly impossible task.

Again he concentrated.

The third candlestick fell.

The fourth did not.

There was a collective moan from the crowd. Viola felt absurdly disappointed.

“It would seem, sir,” she said, “that I get to keep my flowers.”

“Not so hasty, ma'am.” His grin was back and he held out his hand for the ball. “The wager was for five candlesticks
down with five throws, was it not? Did it state that one had to go down with each throw?”

“No.” She laughed when she understood his meaning. “But you have only one throw left, and two candlesticks are standing.”

“Oh ye of little faith,” he murmured with a wink, and Viola felt a pleased fluttering of awareness low in her abdomen.

Then he was concentrating again, and the crowd was being shushed by those who realized he had not yet admitted defeat, and Viola's heart was beating right up into her ears.

Her eyes widened with incredulity and the crowd erupted into a roar of wild cheering as the ball hit one upright candlestick, glanced sideways off it as it fell, and demolished the fifth with a satisfying crack.

The gentleman turned, bowed to his audience, and then grinned at Viola, who was clapping and laughing and realizing that this was by far the most exhilarating moment of the day.

“That bouquet is forfeit, I believe, ma'am,” he said, pointing to her daisies. “I will claim them for myself.”

She stood still while his fingers detached the small bunch of daisies from her hair. His laughing eyes did not waver from her own—they were a very dark brown, she could see now. His skin looked sun-bronzed. His body heat and a musky cologne reached out to envelop her. He carried the daisies to his lips, bowed with careless grace, and pushed the stems into a buttonhole of his shirt.

“A lady's favor at my breast,” he murmured. “What more could I ask of the day?”

But she had no chance to respond to such blatant flirtation. The Reverend Prewitt's hearty voice intruded.

“Bravo, sir!” he exclaimed, stepping forward from the
crowd, his right hand extended. “You are a regular good sport, if you will permit me to say so. Come over to the church lawn and my wife will pour you a cup of tea while I tell you about the charities that will benefit from your generosity.”

The stranger smiled into Viola's eyes with a hint of reluctance and moved away with the vicar.

“I am vastly relieved,” Mr. Claypole said, taking Viola by the elbow again as the crowd drifted away to sample other attractions, “that the Reverend Prewitt was able to cover up for the vulgarity of that display, Miss Thornhill, focused as the whole wager was on your person. It was not seemly. Now perhaps—”

She gave him no chance to complete his thought. “I do believe, sir,” she said, “your mother has been beckoning you for the past ten minutes.”

“Why did you not say so before?” He looked sharply in the direction of the church and hurried off without a backward glance. Viola looked at Hannah, who was standing close by, raised her eyebrows, and laughed aloud.

“Miss Vi,” Hannah said, shaking her head, “he is as handsome as sin. And twice as dangerous, if you were to ask me.”

Clearly she was not talking about Mr. Claypole. “He is just a stranger passing through, Hannah,” Viola said. “It was a very generous donation, was it not? Twenty pounds! We must be thankful that he broke his journey at Trellick. Now I am going to have my fortune told.”

But fortune-tellers were all the same, she reflected when she came out of the booth some time later. Why could they not aim for at least some originality? This one was a gypsy with a reputation for being able to predict the future with remarkable accuracy.

“Beware of a tall, dark, handsome stranger,” she had said after consulting her crystal ball. “He can destroy you—if you do not first snare his heart.”

Tall, dark, and handsome indeed! Viola smiled at a child who had stopped to show her his new spinning top. What a lamentable cliché.

And then she spotted the stranger again, striding away from the church lawn in the direction of the inn stables. Ah, he was leaving, then. Continuing on his way while there was still some daylight left.

A tall, dark, handsome stranger
. She laughed softly.

The sun was already low in the western sky. From the direction of the inn she could hear the fiddlers tuning their instruments. A couple of men were checking the ribbons about the maypole, making sure they were not tangled. She watched and listened with a certain wistful-ness. The maypole dancing was always the joyful, exuberant climax of the May Day celebrations. But it was one activity in which she would have no part. It was not viewed as a genteel activity by the upper-class families of the village and neighborhood. A lady might watch, but she might not participate.

But no matter. She
would
watch and enjoy doing so, as she had last year—her first May Day at Trellick. In the meantime, she was expected at the vicarage for dinner.

By the time Viola stepped out of the vicarage again, darkness had fallen and bonfires were burning on three sides of the village green to provide light for the dancing. The fiddlers were playing, and young people were already twirling about the maypole in a merry, energetic dance. Viola declined an invitation to accompany the Reverend and Mrs. Prewitt as they strolled around the green.
Instead, she moved onto the now-deserted church lawn to enjoy the spectacle alone.

It was amazingly warm for a spring evening. She had draped her shawl about her shoulders, but she did not really need it. Her bonnet was probably still on the back pew of the church. Hannah, her maid, once her nurse, had brushed out her hair before dinner and left it unbraided, tied back at the nape of her neck with a ribbon. It was more comfortable that way. Mr. Claypole would be scandalized indeed if he could see her, but fortunately he had taken his mother and his sister home at dusk.

The fiddling stopped and the dancers dispersed to the edges of the green to catch their breath and choose new partners. The moon was almost at the full, Viola saw, tipping back her head. The sky was brilliantly star-studded. She inhaled deeply of the clean country air, closed her eyes, and breathed a silent prayer of thanksgiving. Who could have predicted just two years ago that she would ever be living in a place like this? Belonging here, accepted here, generally liked here. Her life might have been very different now if…

“Now, what are you doing hiding here,” a voice asked, “when you should be out there dancing?”

Her eyes snapped open. She had neither seen nor heard his approach. She had seen him go to the inn stables earlier and had assumed that he had long ago resumed his journey. She had assured herself that she was not disappointed. Why should she be, after all? He was merely an attractive stranger, who had passed briefly through her life and engaged her in a harmless flirtation over a bunch of wild daisies.

But here he was standing in front of her, awaiting her answer, his face in shadows.
Awaiting her answer
. She suddenly realized what it was he had said.

…you should be out there dancing
.

It would be the perfect ending to a perfect day. Twirling about the maypole. Dancing with the handsome stranger. She did not even want to know who he was. She wanted the mystery preserved so that she could look back on this day with unalloyed pleasure.

“I have been waiting for the right partner, sir,” she said. And then, more outrageously, as she lowered her voice, “I have been waiting
for you.”

“Have you indeed?” He reached out a hand. “Well, here I am.”

She dropped her shawl heedlessly to the grass and placed her hand in his. It closed firmly about her own before he led her away.

It was all pure enchantment after that. The green was lit by the flickering flames of the bonfires. The air was full of the pungent smell of wood smoke. Young men were already leading their partners forward and claiming the bright dangling ribbons. But the stranger secured two and put one in Viola's hand, his teeth flashing white in the darkness. And then the fiddles were scraping out a merry tune and the dance began—the light, tripping, intricate steps, the circular clockwise motion, the twirling and dipping and weaving while ribbons twined together and then miraculously untwined again, the pulsing, steady rhythm that thrummed with the blood through veins; the stars wheeling overhead; the fires crackling, throwing faces into mysterious shadow one moment, illuminating the gay animation in them the next; the spectators around the edges of the green clapping in time to the fiddles and the dancers.

And the focus of the enchantment—the handsome, long-legged stranger, still in his shirtsleeves, the wilting
bunch of daisies adorning one buttonhole, dancing with light-footed grace and vibrant energy and merry laughter. And watching her own exuberance. As if the very universe revolved about the two of them just as surely as they circled the maypole.

Viola was breathless when the music ended and so happy that she thought she might well burst with it. And regretful too that now, finally, this magical day was at an end. Hannah would be eager to return home. The day had been as busy for her as it had been for Viola. She would not make her maid feel obliged to stay longer—though that generous impulse was quickly abandoned, at least temporarily.

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