“Thank you, Reverend.” Mary held back her emotions with an iron will, determined to behave with all the dignity she’d thus far lacked in this man’s presence. It was well and truly over, if indeed, it had ever even begun. Turning, she silently urged the horse to pick up the pace. The sooner they parted ways and she forgot him, the better.
When he spoke, it was with an air of studied indifference. “Am I to assume this means you no longer wish to accompany me on my Sunday calls?”
She couldn’t look at him. Not without bursting into tears. “I would not want to cause you further discomfort. You’ve made it perfectly clear you have neither need for my assistance nor desire for my company. Therefore, to continue in our present mode makes no sense.”
“What of the people you’ve promised to visit?”
Oh, really! Must he make this more difficult? “I shall arrange to call on them during the week with my mother.” She clenched her teeth for a moment before continuing, gathering her courage. “With the exception of church, however, our paths need never cross again. I’m afraid I cannot avoid attending services without rousing my parents’ suspicion as to my motive, but I’ll tell them our parish visits have concluded due to the threat of inclement weather. They won’t question it. By the time it improves enough to resume, I’ll be well on my way to London.”
His look became indignant. “Are y— Do you now seek to punish me for having accepted your apology? I begin to wonder if it was truly meant!”
Frustration burned away the threat of tears. “Every word I utter, you take the wrong way! If I’m friendly, you see it as an attempt to entrap you. If I seek to distance myself, you think I’m trying to bait you into a pursuit. You read inferences into my every action and color my every phrase!”
“Ha!” The derisive bark of laughter echoed in the cold, still air. “And how am I not to color the words of a woman who all but openly declared an affection for me despite my having given her no encouragement?”
Furious beyond caring, she raised her voice. “Had I been bent on having you without considering your wishes or your happiness, I would long ago have ensured the appearance of my compromise at your hands.” She let that sink in. “But you need have no fear of me, Reverend. I would sooner die than entrap an unwilling man, and I fully respect your desire to remain unencumbered. Unlike many women, I comprehend that not all men are the marrying sort. Some remain bachelors for good reason!”
Satisfaction warred with apprehension as his flushed face slowly drained of color. She hadn’t intended to insult him, but if he chose to take her words as such, then so be it. Anger had made her bold enough not to care. He wasn’t interested in her anyway.
“You assume much, Miss Tomblin, and wrongly so, I think.” Against the pallor of his cheeks, his blue eyes looked even darker as they locked with hers. “I will one day take a wife, but it won’t be for some years yet.”
“Best not wait too far into your dotage,” she quipped. “You must be some thirty-five years of age already.”
The color returned to his face in a rush. “I am, in fact, only recently turned thirty—hardly what I would call ‘into my dotage.’ And my age is irrelevant—many men marry at the half century mark or even older.”
“You wish to wait until you’re fifty?” She allowed her incredulity free rein and laughed aloud. “What possible reason can you have to wait so long? It cannot be your situation. A vicar’s living is modest, but well enough to support a family comfortably, provided your household observes good economy.” She couldn’t resist. “Therefore, it must be a lack of suitable candidates that prevents your wedded bliss.”
“Yes, if you must know,” he answered hotly. “My standards are not those of most men.”
And I’ve obviously fallen far short of them! Stung, she smiled sweetly and laced her reply with utmost scorn. “Dear Reverend, you of all people should know perfection exists only in heaven. But if indeed there is an earthly female capable of meeting your lofty requirements, one cannot help but wonder what she’ll make of you. Should you chance to meet this paragon, my advice would be to marry her quickly, before she learns the truth.”
His eyes darkened another shade, presumably with fury. “And what truth is that, Miss Tomblin?”
The thrill of battle sang in her veins, and she made no effort to moderate her harsh tone. “That you, sir, are a conceited ass who thinks himself high above the rest of us unworthy sinners. I’m glad I discovered it now rather than continuing to lavish my time and regard on someone so ungrateful and undeserving of my attentions.”
He flinched, and she saw pain, real pain in his eyes.
The gravity of what she’d done struck her. “Forgive me,” she gasped, full of remorse. “I—I should not have spoken so to you.” Again, she fought back tears, shame making her cheeks warm as he stared at her. “Please, let me take back my harsh words.”
When he at last spoke, it was with unexpected gentleness. “There is naught to forgive. I’ve caused you pain and deserved every one of them. The fault for my rejection is not yours, Miss Tomblin. You are lovely and—when not provoked to wrath—generous and kindhearted. I’m exceedingly flattered by your interest; however, I cannot in good conscience reciprocate.”
“In good conscience”? What does that mean?
But he went on before she could seek clarification. “It would be cruel of me to encourage and accept tender sentiments when I know doing so would only cause you the acutest misery.”
A scowl tightened her brow. “Misery?”
The ghost of a smile flickered about the corners of his mouth, eliciting a hollow ache inside her. “Come now, Miss Tomblin. Let us be frank. Within a few minutes of being in each other’s presence, we unerringly find a bone of contention to squabble over. A marriage between us would be full of strife, the two of us either carrying silent grudges against each other or engaging in open, bloody warfare. In time, you would grow to hate me.”
“I could never ‘hate’ you,” she said, appalled by his gloomy prediction. “Though you do seem to know just how to infuriate me, you are too good a man to truly despise.”
Again, that small, wry smile hovered on his lips. “As you so accurately pointed out, I’m a sinner like everyone else, madam. And even a good man may earn his wife’s contempt if she feels slighted. And you would, in time.” He shut his eyes briefly, as though struggling with some inner pain, before going on. “The Lord is first in my heart, you see, and His flock second. What room is there for aught else in a heart already so occupied?”
The crack in hers widened a little more. “But I’m part of that flock, am I not?”
“Indeed you are.” Reaching out, he gently brushed her cheek with the backs of his fingers.
The shock of his tender touch against her bare skin left a tingling river of fire in its wake, a sensation that was almost eclipsed by surprise at the naked regret that flashed in his blue gaze just before resignation chased it away.
When he spoke again, his voice had deepened to a gravely rumble. “But someone like you could never be happy with anything less than her husband’s whole heart, and that is something I simply cannot give.”
Pulse pounding, Mary couldn’t formulate a coherent argument. Her mind was too busy marking the regretful tone of his words, as well as his nearness and its effect on her. Winter lost its chill as heat slowly blossomed throughout her body and the place between her legs began to throb. As if a hand were pushing her, she found herself leaning toward him on the seat.
Larkspur eyes widened an increment, but he didn’t withdraw.
His clean-shaven face came into sharp relief, the faint, sandpapery texture of the day’s new growth along his jaw contrasting with the smoothness of his lips. For a man, he had such full, sensuous lips. Were they as soft as they looked?
Like iron to a lodestone, he drew her. The look in his darkening eyes shifted as she neared. He wants me. Nothing in his speech had denied it. He’d simply chosen not to act on it.
Emotion met with physical sensation, both crashing over her in a roiling confluence of heartfelt longing and raw, visceral desire. Every nerve came alive in anticipation…
The cart hit a bump, jostling them apart and breaking the spell. Mary turned away suddenly. Cold dribbles of melting snow, shaken from the branches above as a startled bird fled, stung her face. But the icy droplets couldn’t dispel the hot flush rising in her cheeks. And their seemingly mutual physical attraction couldn’t reconcile the differences between them.
I’ve been a complete fool.
She fought to feign nonchalance as she at last answered his rebuttal. “You are undeniably correct in your assessment of me. I would indeed want my affection returned in full measure. As such, I’m forced to admit both my selfishness and our incompatibility. With the exception of the Almighty Himself, Whom we are commanded to love first, I want no competition for my husband’s devotion.” Steeling herself, she added, “Thank you for being patient enough to take the time and make me see the truth.”
His brows shot skyward. “I must confess, that was…not the response I anticipated.”
Mary knew all too well the sort of response he’d expected. But she’d give him no tears.
I’m done crying over men who don’t want me.
It was an effort to dredge up a smile, but she did, though it was tight and shallow, at best. “Rest easy, Reverend. You’ll have no more trouble out of me.”
Part of Devlin was glad to have at last accomplished his goal. Another part—by far the greater part—rebelled against it.
This is for Danny. I must behave as he would. Still, it took every ounce of will not to turn and take Miss Tomblin in his arms, consequences be damned.
“If you wish my continued assistance with your weekly visits, you have but to say so,” she went on, oblivious to his inner struggle. “However, I think it would be easier on my parents’ expectations if we simply sever our association. As such, you had best drop me off at the gate instead of walking me all the way to my door, as I believe they are planning to ask you to dinner later this week.”
All the warmth had gone from her voice and her eyes. It was as if they’d never laughed together, never argued, never nearly kissed. She’d dismissed him from her heart. It was for the best, but it rankled.
It’s Daniel she’s dismissing, not you, dolt! He wanted to believe that if she knew him—the real him—she’d never be able to walk away so easily. But the truth of the matter was that if she knew the real man beneath this cassock, she’d never speak to him, much less consider him for a husband. And she’d be well within her rights to refuse him address. Mary Tomblin was a decent woman, and he was unworthy of her in every respect.
Knowing it made him feel no better. In fact, it made him quite wretched.
At last, he forced himself to speak. “I think you must know best, Miss Tomblin.” Each word was a searing knife plunged into his chest. But she deserved to walk away from this with as little injury as possible. “I’ve been blessed to have you as part of my congregation,” he added awkwardly. “I really do hope you find someone who will make you truly happy.”
Her nod of acceptance was firm and her gray gaze unveiled by tears. When she replied, her voice was calm and quiet. “Thank you, Reverend. I shall always remember the time we’ve spent together with great fondness. When you are ready, I hope you find the right lady to stand by your side.” Her mouth twisted in a wry half smile. “One who won’t be jealous of her husband’s parishioners.”
Devlin knew better than to buy the act, but it was better for her dignity to let her think she’d fooled him. The remainder of their journey was made in silence—at least on the outside. Inside, he was full of questions.
Why hadn’t Daniel given this woman a chance? In Devlin’s case, his main attractant to women was money. He was, to put it bluntly, filthy rich. But, as the lady herself had pointed out, Daniel was a humble vicar, a man of modest means who would require a practical wife capable of running a household with economy. Her interest in his brother had been genuine, not mercenary. She’d thought him kind and caring, a true gentleman worthy of her regard, worthy of her devotion.
For the first time in his life, Devlin thought of his twin with both envy and contempt. How blind did Danny have to be not to see what a treasure she was? His brother was a coward, plain and simple—a craven fool for running from what was possibly the best thing that could ever have landed in this backwater village.
Such thoughts rattled around inside his skull like dice in a cup, allowing him no peace. Half a dozen times, he opened his mouth to speak. Half a dozen times, he closed it again and bit his tongue to keep it still. Its tip was sore by the time they pulled up before her front gate.
His companion turned to face him one last time. “I—I don’t think I’ll be attending the service this evening,” she stammered, her cheeks pinking. “I just…need a little time.”
“Of course.” Inside, he squirmed with discomfort. Clearing his throat, he nodded formally. “Goodnight, Miss Tomblin.”
Stepping down, she went in, shut the gate behind her, and retreated down the gravel path. Her head was high, her back straight, and she didn’t look back even once. As her front door shut, blocking his view, it seemed as though all the color left the world. Even the vivid red breast of the robin that lit on the postern suddenly seemed leached of its brightness.
He’d done it. He’d driven her away. But Devlin felt no sense of accomplishment. Foolishly hoping to see her face appear at a window, he lingered a few minutes more. The robin sang out as twilight deepened, and a chill wind at last impelled him to seek the shelter of the vicarage.
Yes, he’d done what Daniel wanted. But it wasn’t what he wanted.
(C) Liana LeFey, Entangled Publishing, 2021 Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Lord Devlin Wayward, gambler and dedicated rake, returns home for the first time in years, and lands himself and his identical twin, Daniel, the good reverend, in deep trouble. Devlin ends up with a broken leg and unable to travel to London, yet he must return. He’s got an important deal that will make or break his fortune. He persuades the reluctant reverend to take his place in London while he temporarily minds his brother’s flock.
Miss Mary Tomblin is taken with the devastatingly handsome reverend. He represents everything she desires in a husband, after narrowly evading a ruthless rake last Season. Mary knows she’ll make him an excellent wife, but the vicar rebuffs every advance – until he suddenly accepts her help with pastoral duties while his broken leg heals. Mary seizes the chance to show the good reverend what an excellent helpmeet she will be.
The devil takes on the role of village vicar and discovers it’s nowhere near as easy as he imagined—especially when he falls in love with an angel who mistakes him for a saint.
Romance Historical [Entangled: Amara, On Sale: June 14, 2021, e-Book, ISBN: 9781649370006 / eISBN: 9781649370006]
About Liana LeFey
Liana LeFey delights in crafting incendiary tales that capture the heart and the imagination, taking the reader out of the now and into another world. Liana lives in Central Texas with her dashing husband/hero and their beautiful daughter. She’s also privileged to serve one spoiled rotten feline overlord. Fed on bedtime stories from such authors as Tolkien and Baum, Liana became a language-loving, book-gobbling monster at the age of four and has yet to be sated. All books are delicious, but her favorite flavor by far is romance! She began reading romance novels at fourteen with The Kadin by Bertrice Small and is now thrilled to be writing them for fellow enthusiasts.