Melissa and The Vicar First 3 Free!

Here’s a sneak peek at

MELISSA AND THE VICAR

Book 1 in THE SEDUCERS series

A brand new smart and sexy trilogy!

Melissa_and_the_Vicar_S_M_Laviolette_ebook

Chapter One

 New Bickford, England

Melissa Griffin stared into red eyes that burned with malevolence.

Her breath froze in her chest but her heart made up for her lungs’ mutiny by thundering in her ears.

She took a minute step back, but her tormentor strode inexorably closer. She shuffled to the side, but he followed her sideways, too.

“What do you want from me?” she forced the words through gritted teeth.

The foul, evil beast said nothing, stalking ever closer.

There were only two choices: she could run or she could fight—and there was no chance she would vanquish such an implacable foe.

Mel silently counted to three, grabbed two fistfuls of her skirts, and broke into a run while screaming, “Heeeeelp!”

She flew past a tiny daub and wattle cottage that looked like it should have housed angels instead of this nasty brute. Something struck the back of one leg and Mel risked a glimpse at her pursuer: he was right behind her, dogged and menacing and—

“Ooof!” Melissa slammed into a wall that was hard and warm and . . . human.

The human wall grunted. “Here, then, don’t be afraid,” a deep voice soothed.

Mel was blind to everything except the red eyes and razor-sharp claws behind her and plowed through the thicket of limbs, climbing the stranger’s body as if he were a tree.

Strong arms slid around her, lifted her, and spun her around before depositing her on the ground, his body a shield—a substantial one, at that—between Melissa and that fiend.

“Hector!” Her protector’s deep voice was overlaid with a tone of command that demanded to be obeyed.

When only silence met his order, Mel stood on her toes and peeked over broad, black-clad shoulders, pale blond hair tickling her nose.

Her jaw dropped at what she saw: the demon had screeched to a halt and was ambling away in the opposite direction, behaving as if butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth, er, beak.

“Why that—that—”

“Rooster?” the same deep voice said, this time laced with amusement rather than command.

Mel realized she’d pasted the front of her body to the back of his and took a hasty step back. He turned and she blinked; it might have been the conceit of a city dweller, but she’d not expected to see a man as lovely as her savior in the middle of a country lane. In fact, Melissa could not recall seeing a man as beautiful—yes, beautiful—as this one ever. And he was wearing a clerical collar.

“I’ve been rescued from that—that hellion by a vicar?”

Rather than be insulted by her disbelieving tone he smiled, a warm, charming, gorgeous smile that should not have belonged to a man of the cloth. Not that she knew anything whatsoever about vicars and what type of smiles they should or did have. Men of the cloth tended to be thin on the ground in her line of business. For all she knew, all clergymen were this attractive. Perhaps it was a prerequisite of the job? Was that how they filled their pews on Sunday?

“I’m afraid I don’t have the honor of being a vicar—yet. So things are even worse, you see: you’ve actually been rescued by a mere curate.” He executed a graceful bow. “Mister Stanwyck at your service, Miss. . .”

Melissa pulled her gaze away from his mouth, which definitely was wasted on a vicar, and said, “Er, Griffin.”

“A pleasure, Miss Griffin.”

His eyes were the clear, guileless blue of the sky and they met her own rather than roaming her body. Mel’s inner critic—as vociferous and relentless as a Greek choir—pointed out that not every man in Great Britain wished to lay themselves out at her feet. Even if it had seemed that way since she’d been fourteen.

“I know everyone in New Bickford so you must be a visitor, Miss Griffin.”

“Yes. I—I’ve come to the country to convalesce.”

His brow furrowed and his expression shifted to one of genuine sympathy. “I am sorry to hear you’ve been ill.” He wasn’t just mouthing a platitude; he actually sounded sorry.

“I am on the mend now, just—”

“Mister Stanwyck! Yoohoo!” The voice floated toward them from the direction of the quaint little cottage which the vile Hector apparently called home. Right now said villain was placidly scratching among his hen harem, pausing a moment here and there to execute what must have been some type of hen-attracting side-step shuffle, his chest puffed out.

Melissa glared at him; how dare he look so harmless?

The curate greeted the approaching woman. “Hello, Miss Philpot. And how are you this afternoon?”

The woman in question was a tall, gangly female easily twice the curate’s age who was sporting a coquettish smile and the eyelash batting airs of a schoolroom miss.

“Oh, Mr. Stanwyck, Gloria will be so relieved you are here.” Her bulbous green orbs swiveled toward Melissa and her steel gray eyebrows dropped like twin guillotines. “And you’ve brought. . .your sister?” The last word was spoken in such a hopeful tone that Melissa had to bite her lip to keep from laughing.

The curate pressed his too-beautiful lips together in a mild smile that was belied by the twinkle in his eyes. “I’m afraid my parents did not see fit to bless me with any sisters, ma’am, only brothers.”

Miss Philpot was nothing if not adaptable. She turned from Mel, her expression softening as she gazed at the curate. “Well that is certainly the lord’s work if they are all as handsome and sweet-natured as you, Mr. Stanwyck.”

The curate accepted the compliment with a smile and gestured to Melissa. “This is Miss Griffin. I’m afraid she just had a—well, I don’t suppose you would call it a run-in so much as a run-away, with Hector.”

Mel narrowed her eyes at his witticism and was rewarded by one of his stunning smiles.

Miss Philpot wagged an admonishing finger at the vicious animal. “Oh, Hector! Have you been over-vigilant?” She spoke in a tolerant, cooing tone that sent Hector into another of his sideways step-slides. Miss Philpot tittered appreciatively at the maneuver. It seemed the bird’s debatable charms worked on more than just his hens; maybe Hector was smarter than he looked.

Miss Philpot turned to Mel. “I do apologize for Hector’s enthusiasm, Miss, er, Griffin.” The affection in her eyes—a residual product of Hector’s charm—slid away to reveal a zealous gleam that would have done a Spanish Inquisitor proud. “Are you just visiting our village on your way to . . . somewhere else?”

Miss Philpot wasn’t the only one waiting for her response with interest. The cerulean blue eyes of the curate were also turned her way.

Something about his clear gaze made Mel shy and fidgety, a feeling she’d not had since selling oranges on street corners when she was a girl. She brushed off the skirt of her walking costume, as though Hector might have been pelting her with rotted fruits and vegetables rather than just his—she paused to eye the rooster, and was forced to admit, very scrawny—body.

“I am staying in a house down the way.” She gestured with the hand that wasn’t clutching her reticule and then realized she’d motioned in the direction of the ocean. Both members of her small audience wore slight frowns of confusion. Melissa bestowed her most winning smile on Miss Philpot, curious to see if it had any effect on the woman. It did not.

“I’m sorry, I’m afraid I’m a bit turned around.” She pointed toward the path she’d just sprinted down a few moments earlier. “I am staying at Halliburton Manor.”

Miss Philpot’s eyes widened. “Halliburton Manor?”

“Yes, that is correct.” Why was the woman looking at her that way?

“Ah . . . I see. How unusual that we heard nothing about it.”

Mel wondered if she was supposed to place an announcement in the local newspaper or contact the town crier. “I expect that is because I dealt with an agent in London and brought all my own servants.”

“Ah. And you are staying there, er, alone?”

Melissa suppressed a twinge of annoyance at the prying questions; this was the sort of curiosity she should have expected when coming to such a small village. “I—”

“Mister Stanwyck!” a voice trilled from the direction of the cottage. “How delightful to see you. But Agnes, why are you keeping the reverend standing out—oh,” the newcomer said when she noticed Melissa. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there.”

“Gloria, this is the new tenant in Halliburton Manor—Miss Griffin. Miss Griffin, my sister, Miss Gloria Philpot.”

Mel would have known without being told this was Miss Philpot’s sister since the two women were mirror images of each other.

“Halliburton Manor?” Miss Gloria aimed a curious expression Melissa’s way. Just what was it about her choice of residence that was so interesting?

Miss Gloria opened her mouth, no doubt to take over the inquisition, but the curate took charge of the conversation. “You must be walking to town, Miss Griffin? Perhaps I might show you the way?”

Mel thought he looked . . . hopeful.

The Misses Philpot, on the other hand, looked forlorn.

“But, Mr. Stanwyck, didn’t you just come from town? Won’t you come in for some tea?” The elder Miss Philpot stared accusingly at Melissa while she spoke, as if Mel were some sort of siren leading the curate toward jagged rocks.

“And I thought you were going to look at our wisteria trellis, the bit that needs mending,” Miss Gloria added when the curate didn’t jump on the offer of tea.

Mel couldn’t help herself. “Yes, Mister Stanwyck. I should hate to deprive you of tea. And the trellis.”

A muscle at the corner of his shapely mouth twitched. “I’ll just walk Miss Griffin into the village—and show her the church along the way—and be back in half a jiffy. Not to worry, I shall see to the trellis before the day is out.” His hand was at her elbow and he’d managed to turn them both and start down the path without Mel even realizing it.

“Goodbye, ladies. It was a pleasure to meet you,” she tossed over her shoulder at the frowning women. She turned to the reverend, who was walking briskly, as if to put some distance between himself and the two disappointed members of his flock. “A half a jiffy, Mr. Stanwyck? I don’t believe I’ve heard that particular expression before.”

He chuckled, his hand falling away from her arm. “Why do I feel that you enjoy a bit of mischief-making, Miss Griffin?”

“I certainly don’t run away from mischief—not like I run from nasty little feathered, beaked goblins.”

He made a tsking sound. “I can see you’re going to hold that slip of the tongue against me, aren’t you?”

“Perhaps.”

He cut her a look of mock severity. “To err is human but to forgive is divine, Miss Griffin.”

“I’m afraid I’m far more familiar with erring, Mr. Stanwyck.” He had no idea just how true that was.

“Hmm, I see. Well, I must warn you that Hector is something of a favorite in these parts. It would cast a shadow over your reputation to be heard bandying about such opprobrium regarding his character or, er, stature.”

Mel laughed. “Well, I wouldn’t want to have a shadowy reputation.”

“Indeed.” He grinned down at her, looking like the least probable example of a clergyman in all of Britain. “Now, I’m afraid we departed before Miss Philpot could winkle out all your pertinent details.”

“Winkle away, Reverend.”

“When did you arrive at Halliburton Manor, Miss Griffin?”

“Just yesterday.”

“Ah, that explains why neither of the Misses Philpot knew of your arrival. They are early to bed—with the chickens, as it were.”

Mel cast him a sideways look and then wished she hadn’t. With his striking white-blond hair, huge blue eyes—fringed with dark, rather than blond, lashes of course—and classical features, he really was a gorgeous specimen of manhood and that was an area which she could claim expertise. Although he resembled an angel, he was as solidly muscled as a bull beneath his loose-fitting suit—she knew that from having his arms tight around her.

The fact that he was dressed in the sober attire of a clergyman somehow made his fair good looks even more appealing. Or perhaps that was just the novelty of him?

While Melissa was more knowledgeable about men than she cared to be, she’d rarely associated with the wholesome type and she’d never spoken to a member of the clergy—at least not that she was aware of. Something about walking beside him made her feel. . . anxious. Most likely it was just that he did not fit neatly into any of her categories of men. Or perhaps it was because she thought God might strike her down at any moment for having the audacity to associate with one of his Chosen Ones.

“Have a care, Miss Griffin.” A strong, steadying hand reappeared at her elbow and he steered her around a prominent tree root in the path.

“Thank you.” She’d do better to pay more attention to where she was going and less to inventorying the man beside her.

“Do you have an appointment in town or can you take a moment to come and see our fine church windows?” he asked after they’d walked a moment in silence.

She had nothing but time. But did she really want to go inside a church? After all, it hadn’t been her intention to actually attend services or even interact with any of the villagers. That had been the point of leasing a house outside of town.

“Our windows are considered some of the finest in this part of England,” he added, the humor in his voice making her risk another glance. Lord! His eyes were sparkling at her. Were curates supposed to sparkle? Surely not.

“Well, I can’t say no to that, can I?” Mel asked, her tone tarter than she’d intended. “But I cannot stay long because I’m to meet up with my aunt.”

“I’ll show you only the high points and that way deliver you to your aunt in good time.”

“Oh, you needn’t deliver me to her, I’ll be—”

“I can introduce you to the vicar, Mr. Heeley, if he is about.”

“No, really, you needn’t go out of your way.” Lord, the last thing she needed was to meet more clergy. It would be a miracle if she didn’t turn to a pillar of salt, or smoke, or stone, or suffer some sort of divine punishment, not that she’d ever actually read any of the Bible or had any idea of what type of punishment was meted out between its covers.

“It would be my pleasure,” he said, interrupting her muddled thoughts, but not before she realized that she wanted to see his windows and be delivered to the village by him. When was the last time a man had cared enough about her safety to deliver her anywhere? Well, a man other than her dear friend Joss, of course. Perhaps it might be nice to receive such care? That realization only served to annoy her; she had most certainly not come to the country to engage in casual flirtation—especially not with a bloody vicar.

“Is giving every visitor to New Bickford a personal tour part of your strenuous curate’s duties?”

“Oh yes. I’m responsible for any number of things: taking tea with parishioners, mending trellises, showing off church windows, rescuing damsels in distress from feathered predators—Ah, here we are, to the left if you would, Miss Griffin.” He gestured toward an ornate gate set in an old stone wall. “This is the back way into the churchyard now, but it used to be the original lychgate.” He lifted the heavy horseshoe-shaped latch and pushed open the gate. “It is a rare example of the Gothic style.” He waited until she’d gone through and closed it behind her. “Back in those days they called this a resurrection gate.”

Melissa noticed they’d stepped into a graveyard filled with worn, tilted headstones. “Why is this gate no longer used?” She frowned, “Actually, just what is a lychgate for?”

He gestured to the heavy beams topping the gate. “It was a place to shelter the coffin before burial, hence the gate’s unusual substance. The path we just came down is what people used to call a corpse road.”

Mel shivered.

“Are you chilled, Miss Griffin?” He wore a look of concern but she saw the humor lurking in his eyes.

“No, that was merely a case of the shivers, which is exactly what you expected after telling me such a gruesome piece of information.” She raised an eyebrow at him. “Confess it, Mister Stanwyck—you wanted to give me the shivers.”

He laughed, his even white teeth adding to his list of perfections. “You’ll have to forgive me; I have so few amusements.”

Somehow Mel doubted that.

“It is at this point in my tour where I point out our magnificent spire.” He leaned low and close, as if to view something from her height and perspective, and then held out his arm and pointed. “Can you see just the tip of it above that big chestnut tree?”

Melissa was conscious of the heat of his body and his clean, masculine scent. She ignored her body’s unwanted twinge of interest and followed the direction of his pointing finger, to where a foot of gray stone was visible above the tree canopy.

“The church and the gate were built together?” she asked, aware of the pulse beating at the base of her throat and glad when he stood and put some distance between their bodies.

“You have an excellent eye for architecture, Miss Griffin.”

“Now you are guilty of flattery, Mr. Stanwyck.”

He gave the same warm chuckle as before and Melissa decided eliciting such a velvety laugh could prove an enjoyable pastime. Before she could give that alarming thought the scrutiny it deserved, another man dressed in the clothing of a clergyman came toward them.

“Ah, Mr. Stanwyck. Good morning.”

“I was hoping our paths would cross, Vicar. Mr. Heeley, may I introduce Miss Griffin? She is new to our area and has just taken up residence at Halliburton Manor.”

The vicar, a bone-thin man who looked to be in his late sixties or early seventies, stiffened at something his curate said, his reaction not dissimilar to the Philpots’. But he recovered quickly and turned his deep-set gray eyes on her. His mouth curved into a warm smile. “Welcome to New Bickford, Miss Griffin. I am very glad to hear that Halliburton Manor has a tenant again.”

“Thank you, Mr. Heeley.”

“I encountered Miss Griffin not far from the Philpot cottage. She was, er, finding it difficult to pass.”

The vicar chuckled. “Ah, Hector, was it?” He nodded at his own question, not appearing to need an answer. “He is a fierce protector who is cast in the mold of the ancients. A most excellent rooster.”

The curate gave her a look that said, See, I told you so.

Mel’s lips parted.

“Indeed, you speak the truth, Vicar,” Mister Stanwyck interjected when Melissa couldn’t quite find the words she was looking for to express her thoughts on Hector. He cut her a sideways glance and rocked back on his heels. “Hector is one of the Titans.”

“And how long will you stay with us, Miss Griffin?” the vicar asked, pulling her away from the narrow-eyed look she was giving the teasing curate.

It was time to share the story she’d concocted. “Until the end of the summer.” She cleared her throat. “I was ill last winter and have come to the country with my aunt to partake of the country air.”

“Ah, I see. You are from the city?”

“Yes, we are both from London.”

“Well,” the vicar said, his tone brisk as he rubbed his hands together, as if he’d just completed a task and was brushing away the remnants. “I know I’m biased, but I believe there is no town in Great Britain better than ours for peace and healing. We are a close community but also one which respects the privacy of our members.”

Melissa hoped he was correct. Because anyone who pried too deeply into her story would find something they wouldn’t care to discover.

“Well, I shall leave you and Mr. Stanwyck to continue your tour. It was a pleasure, Miss Griffin, and I shall see you on Sunday.”

Melissa made some non-committal sound, waiting until the vicar was out of earshot before turning to the curate.

“I can’t help but think people are surprised to hear I’m staying at Halliburton Manor?”

His cheekbones—high, sharp, and beautiful—looked even more appealing with a faint red stain. “I’m afraid the last inhabitant, er, well, she met a rather tragic end.”

Mel dipped her chin when he stopped. “Yes?”

“She was a widow. Her husband was—” he grimaced. “Well, he was killed in a military engagement in India. Mrs. Symes took her own life.”

It was a sad story, of course, but she still didn’t see—

“Mrs. Symes had not seen her husband for eleven months.” He hesitated and said, “She was with child when she died.”

Ahh, now she understood the odd looks. And the reason for them made her fume.

“I see—a tragedy and a scandal.” She cut him an arch look that was not playful. “Or do the good and proper villagers even see it as a tragedy?”

He blinked in surprise. “Death is always a tragedy, Miss Griffin.” It was an answer, but not one to the question she had asked. He leaned toward her, his blue eyes shadowed with concern. “You look flushed. I believe I’ve tired you out dragging you about.”

She swallowed her irritation at the story he’d told. She’d known something was going on when the two older women, the Philpots, had assumed that faint, virtuous air. Melissa had been the recipient of that look more times than she could count.

Take hold of yourself, Mel!

Yes, she’d better. After all, she’d known a small community often meant small mindedness, but she’d come here, anyway.

You came here to rest and make some important decisions, not to battle rural prejudice.

She forced herself to smile. “Thank you for your concern, but I’m fine. I am, however going to be late so perhaps I’d better be on my way. Maybe you can show me the church some other day.” Though not if she had any say about it.

No, the story he’d just told her made it painfully clear she didn’t need to make friends here—in fact, that was a terrible idea. And making friends with a man of the cloth—especially this handsome, kind, and curious curate? Well, that was the worst thing she could do. For both of them.

 

Chapter Two

Magnus’s clerical collar felt oddly stiff and scratched his neck as he watched Miss Griffin walk away down New Bickford’s narrow main street—its only street, really—with her aunt, Mrs. Daisy Trent.

Mrs. Trent had been waiting for her niece at New Bickford’s tiny inn, the Sleeping Ferret, enjoying a pot of tea in their private parlor.

And what an aunt Mrs. Trent was. Certainly nothing like any of Magnus’s numerous aunts, none of whom were tall, buxom, and bold eyed. He also suspected Mrs. Trent was wearing cosmetics, although he wasn’t familiar enough with such things to be certain.

The two women looked nothing alike. Miss Griffin was a delicate, pale, almost ethereally beautiful auburn-haired goddess who appeared too fragile for this world. Her aunt, on the other hand, epitomized earthiness. Not just her lush body, but her full smiling lips and the knowing glint in her eyes. Magnus had felt as if she were inspecting his person and stripping away his clothing in the process. It was a strange feeling and he’d no doubt imagined it.

After the women had taken their leave from Magnus they’d disappeared into Cooper’s Mercantile together. It hadn’t been his plan linger outside the shop and spy on the two newest members of New Bickford through the diamond-paned windows, but neither was he in a hurry to get away.

Magnus was re-living his brief conversation with the delectable Miss Griffin when a voice behind him pulled him out of his pleasant musing.

“Mr. Stanwyck—a word, please.”

He turned to find Mrs. Pilkington and her three daughters approaching him and bit back a groan.

“Ah, good afternoon, ma’am.”

If you asked anyone who knew Magnus even a little bit whether he was arrogant, proud, or conceited, they would have thrown back their head and laughed. It was true: he wasn’t proud about his physical appearance, which he viewed as a product of two attractive parents, rather than any efforts on his part.

He’d never aspired to be a pink of the ton and his clothing—even before he’d entered the clergy—had always been functional and comfortable rather than stylish. His only real contribution to his outward appearance was to keep his body healthy and fit, which happily was an unexpected byproduct of being an active country curate.

Just because Magnus wasn’t conceited about his looks didn’t mean he was insensible to their effect on the feminine sex. It hadn’t taken him long to realize that excessive interest in his person was an inconvenience for a curate who was not in a position to marry.

It wasn’t his ability to resist all the lures that were tossed his way that worried him. Rather, it was the sheer exhaustion he experienced from having to fight so many silent, relentless skirmishes.

Like Mrs. Pilkington and her three daughters, for example.

“Mister Stanwyck,” Mrs. Pilkington said in her strident voice while her daughters spread out around him. The eldest Miss Pilkington moved into position on his left flank, her middle sister on his right, and the youngest drifted somewhere behind him—a maneuver they must have learned from studying a tactical map of Hannibal’s movements at the Battle of Cannae.

Magnus took pride in meeting his opponent head on and without flinching. “Good afternoon, Mrs. Pilkington.” He turned slightly and nodded to the girls. “Ladies.”

“I have not received your response to our Summer Soiree invitation yet, Mr. Stanwyck.”

Ah, yes, the blasted soiree.

Magnus had begun to suspect that soiree was another word for “curate auction.”

“I apologize for my tardiness in responding, Mrs. Pilkington. I haven’t forgotten. I’m afraid I’m not yet sure of the date of my brother’s wedding and I couldn’t miss that.”

Mrs. Pilkington’s pale, reptilian eyes widened. “Would that be your brother the Earl of Sydell?”

Magnus ground his teeth; his family connections had only served to increase his appeal as a matrimonial object. “No, ma’am. It would be my eldest brother but one.”

“Lord Michael?”

The fact that she knew his brother’s name sent a frisson of terror up his spine. Clearly she’d acquired a copy of the peerage.

The only reason she wasn’t “Lord Magnusing” him all over the county was because of the vicar’s comment early on in Magnus’s curacy: that the title of a man of God superseded those given by men, even the King.

“Yes, it is my brother Michael who will be—” A movement across the street captured his attention. It was Miss Griffin and her unusual aunt leaving the mercantile, each carrying paper-wrapped parcels.

“Who is that?”

He turned to find Mrs. Pilkington’s tiercel gaze fastened on the two women.

“That is Miss Griffin and her aunt, Mrs. Trent.”

“Oh, the new tenants at Halliburton Manor.”

“You know of them?” he asked in some surprise.

She gave Magnus an annoyingly smug smile. “Mr. Pilkington was instrumental in the preparation of the house.”

Mr. Pilkington was in the building trade, so that was her grand way of saying her husband had done some repairs on the long-vacant cottage.

“She’s come from London to partake of our healthy air,” Magnus said.

Just then, Mrs. Trent threw her head back and laughed rather raucously, drawing the attention of more than one passerby.

Mrs. Pilkington frowned at this open display of revelry. “I do hope she is not a hurly-burly sort.”

Her youngest daughter, Emily—the only one who didn’t have a militant gleam in her eyes—squirmed at her parent’s harsh statement. “Oh, Mama.”

Mrs. Pilkington’s head whipped around, her eyes narrowing and her long nose twitching, the expression causing her to bear a striking resemblance to the ferret on the sign she had the misfortune to be standing beneath. She fixed her daughter with a freezing look. “Yes, Emily?”

The girl stared; her eyes held like a rabbit before a hawk.

Magnus stepped in. “I hope you’ll excuse me, Mrs. Pilkington, but I’m afraid I’m late for Mrs. Tisdale.”

An unchristian snort escaped from her mouth. “Oh, her again, is it? A creaking door hangs longest.”

Magnus suppressed the flash of irritation he felt at her unkind comment and swallowed his retort—that Mrs. Tisdale was not a creaking door, but a sick, lonely old lady. Instead he smiled, bowed, and headed off down the street. Conveniently in the same direction as Miss Griffin and her aunt, not that he had any plans to catch up with them.

The path to Mrs. Tisdale’s tiny cottage pulled him off Miss Griffin’s trail not far out of town, but it did not pull her out of his mind.

Magnus told himself that his interest in her was a normal reaction for any man. After all, he couldn’t recall ever meeting a woman as beautiful as Miss Griffin. In addition to her striking auburn hair, creamy complexion, and remarkably voluptuous figure that her walking costume had only served to accentuate, she also possessed a kittenish upper lip that made her plush lower lip appear positively sinful. And, if all that wasn’t enough, her tilted green eyes had sparkled with a weary humor that had shot right to his chest.

Well, to be honest, it had shot a few other places in his body, as well. Just because he was a man of the Church did not mean he was immune to beauty and feminine charms.

Magnus adjusted the strap on the battered leather satchel he always carried, the jars and bottles inside making it heavier than usual. The vicar’s wife had loaded him down with calf’s foot jelly and a poultice that she’d promised to one of the parishioners he planned to call on today. Magnus didn’t have the heart to tell Mrs. Heeley that her jelly most often got passed from household to household until it finally ended up in a pig trough on an outlying farm.

Mrs. Heeley was widely known to be the worst cook in the county—perhaps all of Britain. But she was so good-natured that nobody wanted to hurt her feelings. And so she continued to preserve her bodyweight in dreadful jams and jellies every year, much to the chagrin of her parishioners.

“I don’t know how you can bear it—all those people,” Magnus’s oldest brother Cecil had said the last time Magnus had gone home to visit.

Although Cecil and he were the oldest and youngest of the six brothers they were still the closest. Magnus found their mutual affection both amusing and odd because they had nothing at all in common. Cecil had no time for people—indeed, he actively avoided them—and Magnus rarely met a person he didn’t like.

“What people do you mean, Ceec?” Magnus had asked his brother.

“I mean those malingering sick people, lonely old pensioners, and desperate on-the-shelf spinsters—all clambering for your attention and clinging to you like so many limpets.”

Magnus smiled now as he recalled Cecil’s horror. His brother liked hunting, hounds, and horses. Other than that, Cecil seemed uninterested in the world around him, not the best characteristic for a man who would one day inherit the marquisate and its extensive properties and people.

Their parents had long despaired of him ever pulling his attention away from the sporting life long enough to marry and produce children. It wasn’t that Cecil was a carouser—he didn’t enjoy drinking or gambling—it was just that he had no interest in flirting, dancing, or attending house parties.

When Magnus hadn’t been quick enough to refute Cecil’s words his brother had continued in the same vein. “I don’t understand you, Mag. You’ve got Briar House and a good chunk of land. With some damned fine trails,” he’d added, because there was nothing more important than fox hunting. “You don’t have to do this curate bobbery.”

Magnus had been having this discussion with members of his family ever since he’d decided, at the age of fifteen, to join the clergy. By the time he was twenty he’d given up trying to explain his call to the Church. He was the first, and perhaps only, member of his family as far back as anyone knew to have shown an interest in a career usually taken—unwillingly in most instances—by second sons.

While Magnus had stopped trying to explain his calling to others, he still had to justify moving so far from home to pursue it.

“You don’t need to go all the way down South to be a mere curate.” Cecil said the word south as if it were a vulgar epithet. Which it was to most Yorkshiremen.

“I know that, Ceec, but I like New Bickford and I like Reverend Heeley. And, as difficult as it is for you to believe, I like being a curate and I like tending to old people, on-the-shelf spinsters, and—who else was it you said?”

Cecil had ignored his jest. “How the devil a man can engage in so much blasted praying and live like a monk, I’ll never know.”

The comment about living like a monk had surprised Magnus; after all, Cecil had been the most loyal man alive to his mistress, Alice Thompkins, an older widow who lived in one of the cottage on their father’s estate. Magnus guessed his brother would have married Mrs. Tompkins long ago if he thought his parents would permit it.

Now, Magnus’s other brothers—Michael, Henry, James, and Philip—on the other hand, were a completely different story from Cecil. Tales of the earl’s wild younger sons were told in every taproom in West Riding.

Lord how those four had teased Magnus when he’d turned sixteen and was still a virgin. It was a testament to his incredibly stubborn nature—which his doting mother claimed was his only sin—that he’d not allowed them to drag him to a brothel. But he’d stood firm. And he’d remained chaste even when other men at his seminary visited brothels or kept mistresses. Such activity wasn’t encouraged, but it was tolerated as long as it was kept discrete. After all, more than one of his fellows had observed, becoming a vicar was not like becoming a Catholic priest.

No, they weren’t taking a vow of celibacy, but Magnus couldn’t conscience paying women to slake his physical needs. Instead, he managed his needs himself, no matter how unfulfilling that might be, and looked forward to discovering the joys of the matrimonial bed with his wife. Until that day arrived, he tried to avoid thinking too much about the sexual act if he could help it. Today, he was finding he couldn’t help it.

Something about Miss Griffin had brought thoughts of a carnal nature to mind.

Magnus climbed the steps to Mrs. Tisdale’s tiny house, his face burning at the images running loose in his head. It wasn’t Miss Griffin’s fault that she emanated a seductive sensuality that wrapped around him like the tendrils of ivy.

An unwanted surge of lust rolled through him at the thought of her tilted eyes and that long upper lip. Magnus grimaced; the innocent young woman was probably unaware of the effect her face and figure had on men.

He pushed away the lustful thoughts and rapped on the front door.

Nobody answered, so he opened it a crack and stuck his head inside. The old lady was hard of hearing and her maid-of-all-work only came in the mornings. “Mrs. Tisdale?”

There was no answer so Magnus stepped inside and lowered his satchel to the hall floor. That was when he heard a faint tapping and soft cry overhead.

Magnus bolted for the narrow stairs. He’d never been anywhere on the second floor before but assumed it was where her bedchamber was.

“Mrs. Tisdale?” he called when he reached the landing, which held three doors. The first was a box room and the second a spare bedroom. He opened the third door more slowly. “Mrs. Tisdale?”

“Mister Stanwyck.” The voice, breathy and hoarse, came from the far side of the bed, which was unmade but empty.

Magnus found the old lady on the hardwood floor, her leg bent at an odd angle beneath her. He dropped down beside her and gently shifted her so her weight was not on her leg. She screamed.

“I’m terribly sorry, Mrs. Tisdale,” he soothed, covering her blue-veined, painfully thin legs with her flannel nightgown before turning to look at her face. Her eyes had closed and he was wondering if she’d lost consciousness when her papery lids fluttered open.

“Cold,” she said, even though the house was almost unbearably warm and humid

Magnus did not think that could be good. “I’m going to lift you onto the bed where you can get warm and be more comfortable.”

She grimaced but nodded.

As careful as he was picking her up, she still gave a blood curdling scream that tore at his heart. Not until he’d laid her down and covered her with the heavy quilt did he risk looking at her face.

She was staring at him, her eyes tight with pain.

“I need to go for the doctor.”

Her hand shot out far faster than he’d believed she could move. “No! Not yet.”

“But—”

“Just. . . don’t leave me alone. Stay a moment.” She was breathing too fast and bright spots of color had settled over her knife-sharp cheekbones. Her hand tightened on his, her bony fingers like the claws of a bird. “Please.”

It was the first time he’d heard her speak that particular word. “Of course I’ll stay.” He hooked a foot around a nearby chair and pulled it toward the bed without letting go of her hand.

“Scared.” Her breathing had slowed but was still jerky.

Magnus looked up from their joined hands at the word. Her blue eyes, usually so sharp and pitiless, were watery and vague.

“I’m here now, Mrs. Tisdale. Nothing to be afraid of.”

She nodded, her gaze still fixed upon him, her grip unbreakable.

Mrs. Tisdale was the village outcast. Magnus supposed there was somebody like her in every town in Britain. He had no idea what she’d done to earn the status and he doubted her neighbors remembered, either. She’d simply occupied the role for so many decades it was like an old coat that fit too comfortably to shed.

He knew better than to ask a woman’s age, but he’d seen a book she’d left open once and the flyleaf had contained the words: “To my darling Eunice, for those times we can’t be together. James” The date below the inscription had been 1751. Even if she’d only been twenty it meant she was now somewhere in her eighties. The elegant bones of her face and her huge, deep-set eyes proclaimed she must have been a beautiful young woman.

Magnus realized her grip had loosened and her lips were parted. Her breathing was stertorous, but even and deep: she was sleeping at last.

He carefully disentangled their fingers, tip-toed from the room, and then ran with undignified haste to fetch the doctor.

***

Melissa poured herself another cup of tea—which she’d found was far easier on her stomach than coffee—and broke the seal on Joss Gormley’s most recent letter. Joss wasn’t only her best friend; he was also managing the brothel in Melissa’s absence.

 

Dear Mel:

I hope this letter finds you hale, hearty, and relaxing in the village of New Bickford. Business continues as usual. Laura asks that I pass along her regards and also wanted me to remind you about the expansion she proposed just before you left on your trip.

 

Melissa sighed. She’d been avoiding thinking about the proposal that Laura Maitland, one of her other business partners, had made. To be honest, her heart simply hadn’t been in her business since she’d coughed up blood and almost died that day last fall. A brush with mortality made one reevaluate what was important in one’s life.

She frowned at the unpleasant memory of that day, took another piece of toast, and turned back to the letter.

 

Please don’t get angry.

 

Mel shook her head. “Oh, Joss. What in the world is it now?”

 

Laura did not stop at her reminder; she approached the owner of number nine and made an independent offer for the property, which he is currently considering.

 

Mel dropped her toast. “What?”

 

I know you wanted to wait until you, Laura, and Hugo had a chance to discuss the matter and agree on an offer for the property, but . . .

 

Melissa growled. She had wanted to wait. Now the seller, a hideously sly man, would know they wanted the building and would double the price. She ground her teeth. Laura was clearly running amok without Melissa there to curb her. While she could never love owning a brothel, The White House was her future. If she could sell it for a profit—like the woman she’d bought it from—then she could retire in the next few years. But that wouldn’t happen if she paid a fortune for her next expansion.

“Bloody hell,” she muttered.

 

I know how her behavior will have annoyed you, but it is nothing to Hugo’s annoyance.

 

A laugh broke out of her as Joss’s wry observation. “I’ll wager you’re correct, Joss,” she said, smiling at the thought of her most prickly business partner’s reaction to Laura’s rash behavior.

 

I didn’t think Hugo had it in him to feel anger—or anything other than self-love, really.

 

 Joss despised Hugo—Melissa’s most popular employee with both women and men—and made no secret of it. Of course, a lot of that dislike was due to a rather wicked trick Melissa had played on Joss a few months ago, when she’d used Hugo to get between Joss and the woman Joss had stubbornly refused to admit he loved.

It had been a foolishly dangerous plan, but it had worked.

She knew she should be grateful that the two men hadn’t killed each other that night. Melissa’s view was that all’s well that ends well. Unfortunately, Joss hadn’t seen it that way. While his anger at Melissa had abated, his loathing for Hugo had doubled. And, after he’d blackened Hugo’s eye, the feeling was mutual.

Mel made a tsking sound at the memory and turned back to her letter.

 

The result of Laura’s precipitate action is that Hugo and Laura hate each other more than ever. I think there will be trouble between those two before too long. I’m glad I sold my interest in the business to you. At least I don’t have to worry about the two of them badgering me night and day to sell to them.

 

No, but Melissa would when she returned.

If I return.

Mel paused, the letter crackling between her clenched fingers. Now where had that thought come from? Of course, she was going back—where else would she go?

Her mouth tightened. Nowhere: there was nowhere else to go. At least not anywhere she wouldn’t have to hide her past and who she was. Even staying here temporarily brought a certain amount of anxiety. Men from all over Britain knew her and there was always a possibility—nay, an inevitability—that she would encounter one even in a place as bucolic as New Bickford.

Well, no point dwelling on that right now. This was only her third day here and nobody had recognized her yet. The handsome curate floated into her mind. She snorted. He was one more thing she could never have and should put out of her mind. The two of them were so different they might as well be separate species.

She straightened out the crumpled sheets of paper and turned back to the letter, the rest of which was largely to do with business, some repairs, two other new employees, and a young lord whom Joss had barred from the men’s side of the business for excessive debt. It wasn’t until the end that he said something about himself.

 

My father passed quietly in his sleep last week.

 

She laid a hand on her throat. “Oh, Joss.”

 

As you know, it was a happy release. He’d become little more than a vegetable these past months and my sister was working herself to the bone.

Although she will go to Joseph, her betrothed, soon, I wish to spend a week with her before she marries. I have convinced her to take a brief holiday at the seaside. Please let me know if you would feel uncomfortable if I left Laura and Hugo in charge while I was gone for ten days.

 

Uncomfortable? No, that wasn’t the word she’d use. Terrified was more like it; terrified that there might not be anything to go back to. But that was hardly Joss’s fault. He’d only offered to help manage the business so that Melissa would agree to this stay in the country. He had his own life and expecting him to sacrifice it for the health of the brothel wasn’t fair. Especially not when she had two managers who were supposed to operate the business.

She sighed and glanced down at the bottom of the page.

 

I miss you and hope you are well. Say hello to that spitfire Daisy from me and tell her that more than a few men are mourning her absence.

Your friend,

Joss

 

She folded up the letter, her mind on Joss’s comment about leaving Laura and Hugo in charge: tantamount to leaving the inmates in charge of the asylum. The two whores were the worst possible combination: Laura was willful and rarely stopped to take other people into consideration.

And as for Hugo?

Just thinking his name made her head pound. Hugo was a force of nature. He was, quite frankly, the most sexually attractive man she’d ever met. It was boggling how much fascination he held for both genders—especially considering he wasn’t good looking at all. His whipcord lean body, coal black eyes, and thin, cruel lips should have made him downright ugly. But there was something about him that drew and held the eye; a person would always notice Hugo in a crowded room.

He was the only employee who’d never refused a customer’s request. When it came to sex, Hugo would do anything.

Leaving him in charge of her business would be putting the proverbial fox in charge of the henhouse. A fox who might ransack the building, sell all the valuables, and then set the whole thing on fire just to watch it burn.

“Melissa?”

She looked up to find Daisy standing in the doorway. “Yes?”

“Where were you? I called your name three times.”

“Just thinking and relaxing—what I came here to do.”

“Well, the time for relaxation is over—you’ve got visitors.”

“At this time of day?”

“It’s past noon, luv.”

Mel looked at the clock on the bedside table. So it was. “Who is it?”

Daisy’s full lips curved into a wicked look that had made her a lot of money over the years. “I’d hate to spoil the surprise.”

Chapter Three

Would you like another scone, Mrs. Pilkington?” Daisy had changed into a dress Mel had never seen before—a demure, high-necked pale blue gown with long sleeves. It should have made her look more “aunt-like” but it didn’t.

“No, thank you, Mrs. Trent.”

Mel hid a smile at the Pilkington woman’s pointed tone and stare. She was like a bloodhound that could scent something but couldn’t quite get the trail. Daisy’s act wasn’t fooling her for a second. They would all need to be careful around Mrs. Pilkington.

“The Summer Fête is in just three weeks,” Mrs. Heeley said, blissfully unaware of any undercurrents in the room and accepting another scone, her fourth, Mel noted.

In addition to the vicar’s wife there was Mrs. Pilkington and her three downtrodden daughters; Miss Agnes Philpot; her improbably named sister, Gloria; and two other women whose names Mel could not recall at the moment. An entire church committee, apparently. It seemed like an odd way to call on a complete stranger, but what did Mel know about such things?

She realized everyone was looking at her and waiting for a response. What the devil had they all been yammering about?

She looked at Daisy, who mouthed the words summer and fête.

“Ah, a fête.” Mel cleared her throat. “I’m afraid I’ve never attended such a thing.” They continued to stare. “At least not at our church in London.”

Mrs. Pilkington’s eyebrows shot up. “Is that so? And to what parish do you belong?”

Mel opened her mouth but couldn’t make anything come out of it.

A knock on the door saved her.

“Yes, Jenny?” she said, wanting to kiss the curvy young maid who appeared as guileless as a cherub but in reality, had whipped a sizeable portion of the ton with a riding crop.

“You’ve a visitor, Miss Griffin.” The girl’s eyes met Mel’s in a way that most maids probably wouldn’t and she hesitated as if she were about to deliver a wicked surprise. Melissa would have to talk to Jenny about her acting later. The girl wanted to be on the stage, so she’d better learn to embrace her role. “He says he’s a curate.” She said the word the way another person—one who hadn’t worked in a brothel until a few weeks ago—might say “mermaid” or “unicorn.”

“Please show him in, Jenny.”

Every eye in the room swiveled toward the doorway.

“Ah, good afternoon, Miss Griffin.” Reverend Stanwyck’s blue eyes widened as he took in the number of people in the room. “I see I’m interrupting something—”

“You are more than welcome.” Mel said a silent prayer of gratitude for the curate’s distracting presence. She motioned to Daisy, “You remember my aunt, Mrs. Trent?”

“Naturally. Good afternoon, ma’am.” He gave Daisy an elegant bow that brought out her carnivorous smile and Mel wanted to groan. Could the woman behave any more like a tart if she tried?

The arrival of the handsome curate threw the dynamic of the room completely off-kilter.

Mel leaned close to Daisy. “Quick, what church do I attend in London?” she whispered as the reverend bowed and greeted the cluster of women.

“Don’t ask me—the only church I know of is St. Paul’s.”

“Good Lord. Do they even have services there?”

Daisy snorted. “Why are you asking me these questions?” She gestured with her chin toward the curate, who was sitting in the middle of the flock of women looking far more comfortable than any man had a right to be. “There’s your local expert.”

Mel gave her a filthy look.

“Two sugars and milk, please,” Mister Stanwyck said to the elder Miss Philpot, who’d somehow won the competition among the women to serve him his tea when Melissa did not immediately spring to her feet.

He took the cup and saucer, thanked her, and turned to his rapt audience. “Please, I was serious about not wishing to interrupt.”

“We were just talking about Saint Botolph’s Summer Fête,” Melissa said, before Mrs. Pilkington could unsheathe her claws again and reintroduce the subject of London churches.

“Yes, we were speaking of the bazaar and what we had assembled thus far.” Miss Gloria Philpot was staring worshipfully at the curate and had scooted all the way to the edge of her chair, until only the tiniest sliver of rump was keeping her from falling on the floor.

“I’m not sure I understand what a bazaar is,” Daisy said, as if she were genuinely interested.

“It is the same as a fair or market, just with a more varied selection of items rather than vegetables and such. We set up booths in the park and people sell different things. At the end of the day all the money is counted and the booth that earns the most gets a surprise gift. All the money goes toward the church windows,” Mister Stanwyck said.

Ah, the church windows again. Mel really must see them.

“Mister Stanwyck has a booth where he does the loveliest portraits,” one of Mrs. Pilkington’s daughters piped up—the oldest, Melissa thought.

All eyes were on the man in question, who was eating his biscuit, the elegant angles of his face darkening slightly. So, this was something that embarrassed him.

Melissa couldn’t resist teasing him. “Ah, you are an artist, Mr. Stanwyck.”

He took a sip of tea and set down his cup and saucer before shaking his head, his lips curved in a half-smile. “No, artist is far too strong. I am a. . . dabbler.”

The women broke into a chorus of “no’s” and “you’re too humble’s.”

But Mr. Stanwyck was determined to change the subject. “Tell me, Miss Griffin, do you have a special talent that might earn money for the windows?”

Daisy choked and spewed tea into her lap. Mr. Stanwyck was immediately on his feet, hovering over her with an expression of concern on his beautiful face. “I say, are you quite alright, Mrs. Trent?”

Mel leaned close to Daisy and smacked her on the back. Hard.

“I’m fine,” Daisy wheezed, lurching to her feet. “Please, excuse me.” She clamped both hands over her mouth and fled the room. Mel imagined her collapsing with laughter in the kitchen and entertaining the others with the curate’s innocent question.

“Would you like to go after her and—” Mr. Stanwyck began, his brow furrowed with concern. “Help her?” he finished lamely.

Mel gave him a grim smile. “I daresay she’ll be fine. Tell me,” she said, adopting a softer tone, “what do some of the other booths sell?”

“Mrs. Heeley sells some of the jams and jellies she makes during the year.” A pregnant silence followed this declaration.

“One year Farmer Sinclair brought ice and we had raspberry ices—in the middle of summer!” This was Emily Pilkington, the youngest of the three girls and by far the least like her mother.

“My sister and I sell wool stockings.” This from one of the women whose name Mel didn’t know.

Mrs. Pilkington made a derisive sound. “My daughters and I will be selling various needlework projects, such as antimacassars.” Her expression was virtuous—as if God preferred chair covers to wool stockings.

“Lady Barclay donates cut flowers from her hot-houses,” Miss Philpot added, not to be outdone by Mrs. Pilkington, a woman she clearly viewed as her nemesis.

Mel wondered where Lady Barclay was today and why she hadn’t converged on her with all the others.

“Sir Thomas and Lady Barclay have not yet returned from London,” Mrs. Heeley said, as if Mel had spoken out loud.

“They go every year for the Season.” Mrs. Pilkington bristled with pride, basking in the reflected glow of her august neighbors.

“Last year Agnes and I sold potted herbs.” This from Miss Gloria Philpot, whose pronouncement earned her a repressive look from Mrs. Pilkington. A tense silence settled over the room.

Mr. Stanwyck cleared his throat. “Ah, distribution from each unto every man according to his—or her—need, as it were,” the curate interjected when the two formidable women engaged in a staring match.

Miss Philpot and Mrs. Pilkington turned to Mr. Stanwyck but Mel couldn’t help noticing that neither woman looked entirely convinced by his aphorism.

“Is that from the Bible?” Mel asked, amused by his attempts to restore peace.

Once again, she caught a glimpse of unholy humor in his heavenly blue eyes. “Yes—from Acts.”

Mrs. Heeley gave the young curate a possessive, motherly smile. “The vicar always says he’s never had a curate with such extensive knowledge of scripture as Mr. Stanwyck.”

The other women clucked with approval—even the two combatants settled their feathers—while the man in question squirmed.

“How very commendable, Mr. Stanwyck.” Mel had to bite her lip to keep from laughing when he gave her a narrow-eyed look.

The rest of the visit passed quickly, with each of the women vying to out-extoll the curate’s virtues.

Daisy resurfaced just as the visitors were taking their leave, dexterously thwarting Mrs. Pilkington’s efforts to time her departure with the curate’s.

As a result, Mel and Mr. Stanwyck were the last two in the entry hall while Daisy strong-armed the Pilkington brood into the back garden under the laughable pretext of needing advice about local flora. The closest Daisy ever came to nature was the silk flowers in her monstrous hats.

Mr. Stanwyck held his hat in his hands as he looked down at her, smiling. “You were wicked to have challenged my biblical knowledge while I attempted to smooth the waters earlier, Miss Griffin.”

“Oh? I don’t know what you mean, sir.” Mel knew she could do innocence as well as a vestal virgin—whatever those might be. Perhaps it was in the Old Testament and Mr. Stanwyck might spend some time instructing her . . .

“You don’t fool me for an instant.”

Mel chuckled. “I’m sorry, that was wicked of me. But you have to admit you deserved it. All that petting and stroking can’t be good for you—you’ll end up with an insufferably big head. Look what so much praise has done to Hector?”

“Did you just compare me to a rooster, Miss Griffin?”

“I would never do such a thing. But if I had, I would’ve thought you’d treasure such a comparison given Hector’s titan status in the community.”

“Touché.” He gave her a smile that did something odd to her chest. Melissa was trying to figure out exactly what it was when he asked, “By the by, you did an excellent job of dodging the question of what you might do at our fête.”

“Are you calling me dodgy, Mr. Stanwyck?” she asked, her tone a perfect echo of his.

“I would never say such a thing,” he mocked, not to be outdone.

Mel laughed.

He clapped his hat on his head and bowed. “I’m afraid I must be getting on, Miss Griffin. Please give my regards to your aunt and tell her I’m sorry I could not wait to say goodbye.” He paused at the bottom of the steps and smiled. “You’ve got less than three weeks to come up with something for the fête.”

Mel admired his tall, broad-shouldered physique as he strode down the walk, suddenly wishing he would stop, come back, and . . . what?

Just as he reached the end of the walk she called out. “What happens if I don’t come up with anything? Will I end up in the public stocks?”

Rich laughter filled the emptiness between them. “Nothing quite like the prospect of a public shaming to motivate a person!” he called over his shoulder.

And then he disappeared around the hedge.

***

Although Magnus couldn’t have said why, he was more than a little surprised when Sunday arrived and Miss Griffin and her aunt appeared in church. She’d not said she was not coming, but neither had she appeared enthusiastic when the vicar had mentioned it.

They arrived a few moments late and took seats in the very back pew, the one closest to the door, as if they were already planning for their escape.

It was not his week to deliver the sermon, a fact for which he found himself inexplicably grateful. He’d never felt shy about speaking in church before. In fact, he enjoyed both contemplating and drafting his sermons. So why was he grateful he wasn’t delivering one today? Was it because he could imagine the mocking expression she’d wear while listening to any sermon of his?

And just why did he imagine she would look that way? She’d given no indication of . . . well, of impiety. So why would he think such a thing?

The truth was that she’d done nothing to engender such suspicions. No, it was more the way she looked. Magnus felt ashamed just thinking such a horrid thought—as if the way his body responded to her beauty was somehow evidence of her wicked nature, rather than his own lustful imaginings.

He gave a slight shake of his head; his thoughts when it came to Miss Griffin were very Old Testament in nature and he should devote serious consideration as to why he viewed her in such a light.

It also bothered Magnus more than he liked to admit that the thought of potential mockery from her—or from anyone, for that matter—would discountenance him when it came to his faith or his calling. Yes, he would get to the heart of the matter when he next meditated.

But for now, he tried to concentrate on worthier matters—like Mrs. Tisdale. He liked the cantankerous old woman and knew that being bedbound with a broken leg would likely drive her—and Dori, the poor girl he’d engaged to look after her—to distraction. Even though he knew Mrs. Tisdale would be in a mood, he was still looking forward to visiting her after church today.

Mr. Heeley gave a sermon on turning the other cheek, a barely veiled reference to Mr. Dawkins and his neighbors, the Misses Philpot, who’d resumed the same battle they fought every year: Mr. Dawkins’s garden versus the sisters’ ever-increasing flock, led by their beloved Hector.

Magnus’s gaze wandered along with his attention, settling in the same place no matter how many times he wrenched it away. Miss Griffin had been here barely a week and already he believed she appeared healthier. She was still fragile-looking and lovely, but no longer as pale.

She looked up and caught him staring.

His chest froze even though the rest of him burned. He wanted to look away; indeed, it was the polite thing to do. But he couldn’t. She held him captive, her green eyes as shrouded in secrets as a medieval forest. In that instant, Magnus felt sure that she saw the images his fertile imagination created when he was alone in his tiny curate’s cottage at night. In his bed.

The corners of her mesmerizing lips turned up so slightly he wasn’t sure he hadn’t imagined it. And then she looked away.

It was as if a large fist released him and he snorted air through his nose, just like a drowning man gasping for air.

***

Getting Daisy out of bed, in a respectable dress, and on the footpath toward the church had taken every bit of energy Melissa possessed.

“I though you came out all the way to the back of beyond to rest and sleep and get better,” the older woman groused, her carefully cultivated accent dropping away in her anger. “If I’d known you’d planned on gettin’ up before the cock’s crow and gettin’ all churchy on me I never would have come.”

They’d been passing the Philpot cottage at the time and Daisy had lowered her voice to a hiss, neither of them interested in catching Hector’s attention.

“I’m paying you to behave like a respectable guardian,” Mel reminded her after they’d scurried past unscathed. “Why else did you think I wanted you here? For a quick frig and a ride on that dirty mouth of yours?”

Daisy muttered something under her breath.

Mel stopped and grabbed her arm, pulling her to a halt. “What did you say?”

Daisy yanked herself away. “I said maybe that is exactly what you need. When’s the last time you’ve had anyone between your legs, man or woman? If you ask me, what you really need is a proper fuck to sort you out and get you out o’ this black mood you been in for months.”

“Well, I didn’t ask you.”

Daisy crossed her arms. “No, you didn’t. You don’t ask nobody nothin’—you’re too much smarter than the rest of us, aren’t you? But let me tell you somethin’, Madam Melissa Bloody Griffin, you ain’t fooling me. You’re miserable and heartsick and no amount o’ church or dressin’ prissy or movin’ to the country will help you get away from yerself.”

Melissa worked her jaw from side to side, willing herself to calm down. She refused to do this—to argue with an employee. Because that’s what Daisy was: her employee. They’d been friends and equals once, long ago, but that changed the day Melissa purchased the brothel. Now, Melissa employed eighty-one people; that was eighty-one livelihoods she held in her hands—eighty-one futures that relied on her making the right decisions.

And all the while she was making sure people got fed, paid, and housed, there were other people—men, mostly—who’d like nothing better than to take away what was hers. And there were other men—moral men—who just wanted to shut her business down. And then there were those in authority who wanted a piece of the pie to keep their mouths shut. And then there were her own qualms that woke her in the middle of the night—yes, in her empty bed—about making her money off the backs of others.

The old arguments she’d always used—that at least she gave whores a safer, healthier, and more prosperous place to do the job they did—well, those arguments were as frayed around the edges as a ragged blanket that no longer offered comfort.

But, at the end of the day, all of that was just so much philosophical dithering that she couldn’t afford. A woman like her had two options: either being alone at the top or being used and abused at the bottom. Melissa knew she would take the first of those options every single time.

She looked up at Daisy, who stood a good five inches taller than her. “If you don’t want to play the part I’m paying you to play then say so and you can go back to London and I’ll send for some other aunt. And don’t think I haven’t noticed you twistin’ Jenny and Sarah’s tails and makin’ them behave badly, too.” Jenny and Sarah were two of the younger whores Mel had brought along to act as domestics in this farce. They were good girls, but this was the first time they’d been out of London and they were both eagerly, and easily, led into mischief. “I know it’s been you encouragin’ them to sneak out at night, Daisy.”

Just like Daisy, Mel let her own St. Giles accent slip into her words when she became excited or annoyed; all those years of careful practice gone in a heartbeat.

Mel shook her head in disgust; Christ, give her anything but a whiney whore first thing in the morning.

“You do what you want, Daisy. I’m going to church.” Mel set off without looking back. Only when she heard a scuffing sound behind her did she know Daisy had followed.

They trudged for a while in silence, Mel slowing a bit, until they were walking side by side again.

Daisy was the first to speak, just as they’d both known she would be. It wasn’t because Mel employed her; no, Daisy spoke first because Mel’s ability to carry a grudge was legendary. It wasn’t something she was proud of, but she had to admit that she’d die of thirst rather than open her mouth to ask for a glass of water if she was angry enough.

“I’m sorry for getting the other girls riled up.”

Mel grunted.

“And I’m sorry about the way I’ve been riding you. I’ll do better about being . . . aunt-ish.”

“Good.”

After that Daisy filled the walk with chatter, knowing better than to expect too much in response. Another thing Mel wasn’t proud of was how long it took her to shift her mood back once she’d gotten angry. But by the time they arrived at the small church—late, by the look of it—she’d calmed down enough to ask Daisy how she looked.

Daisy tweaked a hair into place, adjusted her hat a fraction, and smiled. “You look bloomin’.”

Mel smiled up at her. “So do you.”

And then Melissa entered a church for the first time in her life.

***

Ten minutes felt like ten hours. The bench was hard and unforgiving, Reverend Heeley’s voice droned on and on, his sermon was achingly boring, and the other parishioners far too interested in Melissa for her comfort. In fact, the only good thing about the entire ordeal was Mister Stanwyck sitting right up front like a prized ornament on a mantelpiece. Her brain hadn’t exaggerated his handsome, angelic looks; he deserved to be sitting up front and visible.

Mel entertained herself by wondering what he was thinking. His handsome features were fixed in an expression of thoughtful attentiveness, as if every word that fell from the vicar’s lips—and there were a lot of them—was of the utmost importance.

But his eyes betrayed him. They found Mel again and again and again.

At first, she pretended she didn’t feel the weight of his stare. But just once, she let their eyes meet and lock. Daisy had finally needed to nudge her in the ribs.

“Oye,” she hissed. “You’ve stop breathing.”

She had. But so had he—she’d seen it on his face. She’d also heard him suck in air from all the way in the back of the church.

He avoided meeting her gaze again and the rest of the service was a misery.

When it seemed like things might be over Daisy whispered, “Are we staying to do the pretty? Or do you want to leave now?”

Mel wanted to see him—to talk to him—but she knew what it would be like once the doors opened: a cloud of females as thick as summer flies would descend on him.

So, they’d left early, drawing several scandalized looks from those in the immediate vicinity. Well, that was too bad.

“I’m going home and crawling back into bed,” Daisy said with a huge yawn as they let themselves out the back lychgate.

Mel was too edgy to rest, and if she went home, she’d just fret about what was going on in London, what Hugo and Laura were up to, and a hundred other things that she’d promised herself she’d leave behind.

She reminded herself that she’d made the effort to come all this way to get healthy; she might as well give it a fair try.

What had Joss said to her when he’d seen her off that last day? “Go for long walks, Mel. Even if you don’t think you want to, you’ll be glad you did.”

So Mel said, “I’m going for a walk.”

Daisy stared. “Walking back home is a walk.”

Mel ignored her and turned toward town. If she recalled correctly, there had been other paths; maybe one of them led down to the water. New Bickford wasn’t directly on the water but she knew it wasn’t too far off. She’d been here almost a week and still not dipped her toes in the ocean—another thing Joss had suggested. Mel should have asked somebody the best way to get to the water—some of the surrounding cliffs were far too steep to use—but one had to get to water if one just kept walking, didn’t one?

She followed the path, taking the first left she came to. Almost immediately she found herself in a surprisingly dense stand of trees. Mel hesitated, wondering if she’d wandered onto somebody’s private footpath.

Well, if they wanted her off it, they could tell her so.

The wooded area ended abruptly and she came out of the trees into a little clearing. Not far ahead the path ran beside a cottage. Mel paused and looked around. There were no out buildings, no garden to speak of, nothing, just a little house that looked to have sprung from the ground itself. Yet it appeared well-tended, so somebody must live in it.

Mel was about to resume her journey when the front door flew open and a whirlwind in skirts came flying out.

“You—you evil old witch!” the whirlwind yelled into the house, which looked dark beyond the doorway.

Faint laughter drifted from inside the house. The girl slammed the door—which sprang back open and hit the wall instead of closing—and spun around, shrieking when she saw Melissa.

Mel raised her hands in a gesture meant to be calming, but the woman flinched away.

“Are you here for her?” she demanded. But then she turned and spat on the ground, not waiting for an answer. “If you know what’s good for you, you’ll leave without stepping foot into her web.” And with that she stormed past close enough that her skirts brushed against Mel’s.

The little clearing was once again quiet, the only sound that of the door as it softly tapped against the wall.

What had all that been about?

Mel squinted through the doorway into the house; she could see nothing.

Tap, tap, tap.

Mel yelped and spun around. What in the—

Tap, tap, tap.

The noise came from overhead and she looked up to find an old woman peering down from a closed window. She pointed at Mel and made a beckoning motion: come in.

Mel stared and the woman beckoned again.

She dropped her eyes to the doorway the deranged woman had just stormed out of, a picture forming in her mind. The woman upstairs was obviously bedridden and the girl who’d stormed off had been her caretaker. She chewed her lip, wondering what kind of woman could make another woman that angry.

Tap, tap, tap.

Well, it seemed like she was about to find out.

She sighed, picked up her skirts, and climbed the steps.

****

Thanks so much for reading! If you liked what you’ve read so far, you can grab a copy at Amazon, where the book is also in Kindle Unlimited.

Follow this link to smart and sexy historical romance

JOSS AND THE COUNTESS, Book 2 in The Seducers Series, will be out June 2nd!

Smart and Sexy Historical Romance on the way!

Follow this link to smart and sexy historical romance