Valentine Windham has traveled to Oxfordshire to make the acquaintance of the local vicar. His errand is a clandestine favor for a friend, David, Viscount Fairly, who wants an assessment of the local vicar’s character and circumstances. To spend time with the handsome clergyman, Valentine poses as a town swell looking for potential country properties to purchase. Vicar Daniel offers to show Val the old Markham place, but warns that they must obtain the key from parishioner Ellen FitzEngle whose tenant cottage is near the manor. Ellen missed services last week, and the vicar professes to be concerned for her…
Mounted on Ezekiel, Valentine walked along in silence beside the vicar’s gelding for a good half mile, the warmth of the sun, the blossomy scent of the breeze, and the pleasure of simple companionship adequate to support Valentine’s sense of a day removed from all that was familiar and troubling.
A man needed such days—sometimes in quantity.
“We’re approaching your goal,” Mr. Daniel said. “You’ll want to stop by Mrs. FitzEngle’s to get the key first. I’ll introduce you, if you like.”
“My thanks.” In an odd way, country proprieties were more confining than their urban counterparts. Mrs. FitzEngle, probably a venerable old fixture in the neighborhood, wouldn’t be turning her key over to just any stranger. Were Val to pressure her to do so, she’d no doubt dine on his bones with the neighbors for years.
They turned in through gate posts topped with snarling, lichen encrusted griffins, and walked the horses up an overgrown drive lined with huge, spreading oak trees. The canopy overhead was thick enough to keep the drive in shade, but the rhododendrons in the understory were blooming, and to Val, the lane looked enchanted, not neglected.
“It’s lovely,” the vicar observed. “Primeval and all that, but I wouldn’t want to try to get my coach and four to the house over this track.”
“And do many of my prospective neighbors drive a coach and four?” Val asked, eyebrow raised.
“No,” Mr. Daniel replied, “but by nightfall, as the neighbors will have it, you no doubt arrived in a coach and six, four outriders and liveried postillions, so I’d consider whacking at your hedges a bit.”
“My hedges, are they?” Val inquired dryly.
“And you’d be surprised what you’ve paid for them,” the vicar quipped. “I’ll be hearing in The Tired Rooster about how scandalous it was, the way Young Sir was practically fleeced of his inheritance. Mrs. FitzEngle’s abode lies down this track.”
He gestured at a break in the rhododendrons, and Val let him lead the way down the narrow path. As the trees and flowers parted to reveal a sunny clearing, Val again had the sense that he’d stepped into some enchanted time, into a place where piskies and elves made the pretty things grow and left rings of toadstools on the forest floor.
In the middle of the clearing stood a cottage absolutely swamped with flowers. Earthen planters, each overflowing with more bright blooms, bordered the wide stone porch running the length the cottage. The walkway to the little house was trimmed with tulips and narcissus, the entire clearing ringed in lilacs, forsythia, and myriad other bushes Val couldn’t name.
“Mrs. FitzEngle takes her gardening seriously,” Val remarked.
“Oh, not that seriously,” the vicar replied. “My guess is she’s around back, tending her gardens.”
There’s more? The old dear must have some kind of obsession Val concluded as he tied his horse to a porch rail and followed his companion around another flower-lined walkway to the rear of the cottage.
Good God, there was more. Much more. Rows of greening shrubs; short, fluffy bushes, little sprouting things, and of course, beds of flowers stretched out clear back to the woods ringing the clearing. Even in the woods, pots hung from lower limbs, greenery and blooms spilling over the lips.
“Vicar Daniel!” A musical, feminine voice called. “Over here!”
At first, all Val could see was an arm, waving above a wide-brimmed, floppy straw hat, the rest of the lady obscured by a flowering hedge of some sort. As he approached, he saw that for an older woman, she’d kept her figure very nicely. A faded blue dress adorned with only a ribbon around the empire waistline somehow fit in with the colors and sunshine of the garden.
As they drew nearer still, he was surprised to see the woman had no shoes on, which only confirmed his sense that the vicar was right to check up on a parishioner so obviously flirting with the vagueness of greater old age.
But then, ah, then, she turned her face up, so the wide hat no longer obscured her features, and Val had the thought that all the flowers and natural beauty in the world would not be an excessive setting for such sheer feminine appeal. Mrs. FitzEngle was not precisely beautiful, though she certainly qualified as pretty. She had, though, a kind of gracious warmth, visible in her smile and in her eyes, and a grace of movement evident in the hand she stretched out to the vicar, that smote the senses into muteness.
She was, in short, purely lovely.
“Mrs. Ellen FitzEngle, may I make known to you Mr. Valentine Windham, late of London. Ellen, Mr. Windham is in need a key to the manor, if you can spare it.”
“Why, of course,” the woman replied, curtseying with unhurried dignity, her smile warming Val to his toes. “Let us have some refreshment first, and you can tell me, Vicar, how Olivia goes on and what I missed this Sunday past.”
Odd, that. Val hadn’t been aware of being cold until she’d smiled at him—and on such a fine spring day, too.
She turned back to Val. “Have you time for some lemonade or a pot of tea, Mr. Windham?”
“Lemonade appeals,” Val said, hoping his expression was merely friendly and not as dumbstruck as he felt. “We had a brisk ride out from town, didn’t we, Vicar?”
“Beelzebub was restless,” the vicar agreed, holding an arm out to Mrs. FitzEngle. She accepted it easily, but then held her other hand out to Val. “Come, Mr. Windham, we are not formal hereabouts. Wander with us back up to the cottage.”
So Val took her other arm, slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow, and caught a devastating whiff of an entire flower garden of fragrances from Mrs. FitzEngle’s warm, barefoot person. Their progress up to the house was meandering, with Mrs. FitzEngle pointing out the growth of this bush, the fullness of the buds on that flower. He enjoyed it, the way a man might enjoy an unexpected and thoroughly welcome sexual encounter.
His senses were a bit dazzled, and in a way he did not want to examine too closely lest the enjoyment be analyzed right out of the experience.
While he and the vicar took seats on the shady back porch, Mrs. FitzEngle left them to bustle around in her kitchen. The view from the back porch was as sumptuous as it had been from every other vantage point on the property. Everywhere, Val beheld gorgeous colors, flowers, and scents.
“Just recall,” the vicar stated with a wicked smile, “the roof on the manor is in terrible repair.”
Val grinned back at him a bit sheepishly. “You should have warned me, sir.”
“The property is breathtaking, isn’t it?” Mr. Daniel replied, all innocence.
“Most people don’t know what’s back here,” he said. “They see Ellen at market, they know she produces herbs, sachets, cuttings, and so forth. They buy her wares happily, without realizing what an effort it is for her to create them. And that’s a shame, for I believe people would pay money to see these gardens.”
“Your lemonade, gentlemen.” Mrs. FitzEngle reappeared with a laden tray. She’d adorned each large, ceramic mug with a sprig of mint and a bud of lavender. The mugs themselves were glazed a deep green, and the whole effect was a pleasant touch of beauty. Val was a trifle to disappointed to note she’d also found a moment to put on some shoes.
“My thanks,” Val said, getting to his feet.
Mrs. FitzEngle subsided into a seat. “Do sit down, Mr. Windham. You found me in my oldest dress, barefoot, and quite undone. We can’t have you insisting on ceremony. I shall blush if you do.”
She’d taken off her straw hat, revealing hair of a medium reddish-brown. Not titian, or auburn, or ash, or even a striking black, though the color suited her warmth and informality. She’d braided it in one thick, slightly untidy plait that hung down her spine to her waist.
And what would that hair look like, unbound, brushed into waves, trailing down her naked back?
“So, Ellen,” the vicar said, after complimenting her on the lemonade, “what became of you last week that we had to muddle along without your soprano?”
“Leaving you to the tender strains of Mrs. Wicklow? Not well done of me, I do apologize.”
“It provoked, er, rather, inspired Mrs. Halsey to her most stentorian effort on the alto line, and then I had to go preach on the need for beauty and joy in life. I lay the entire disaster at your dainty feet.”
They were easy with each other. Comfortable, like cousins, or siblings. Val sought for a sexual undercurrent, but there appeared to be none.
Mrs. FitzEngle brought the sprig of lavender to her nose. “It was the new moon and I had many seedlings that needed to go in the ground.” She turned her smile to Val as she continued. “With my plants, I follow many of the old ways. I ask them to begin new endeavors with the new moon, and I transplant at night, when they sleep and will feel the shock of it less. I harvest as the moon grows full, and so forth.”
Val turned a questioning eye on the vicar. “You do not object to the pagan practices?”
“For goodness sake, Mr. Windham,” the vicar rejoined mildly, “how could I? You’ve seen the results. Besides, to the more conservative among us Ellen has already explained, very patiently, that we plant crops in the spring because that only makes sense. It doesn’t mean we’re pagans. She plants with the new moon for the same reason: It makes sense.”
“It also,” the fair Ellen said, “makes one oversleep.”
“There is that.” Daniel smiled at Ellen, and for the first time since seeing them together, Val knew a bit of doubt: Perhaps they were lovers after all. The smile between them was conspiratorial; it spoke of something shared exclusively between them, something private beyond the mundane confidences of the confessional.
“Well,” the vicar said, patting Mrs. FitzEngle’s hand, “I am relieved to see you are well and your gardens are thriving. I won’t worry unless we miss you next Sunday too, because even I know the new moon excuse will only work every four weeks or so.”
“It isn’t an excuse to assist with creation, sir, and well you know it.”
It was the first hint of fractiousness Val had seen in the woman, and he rather liked that she’d directed it at the handsome vicar.
“And women,” Val pointed out, “do seem to have the corner on bringing new life into the world.”
Another glance passed between Mrs. FitzEngle and the vicar, leaving Val with the impression that he’d said something inappropriate.
“So they do,” the vicar said, rising. “And speaking of women, my own dear Olivia will wonder where I am if I do not hie myself back to vicarage by suppertime, preferably devoid of the smell of horse. I had best be on my way. I’ll leave Mr. Windham in your hands, Ellen.”
Val stood, and it occurred to him that if Mr. Daniel had sought to have a private interlude with his mistress, he’d hardly have invited himself along to accompany Val, and then abandoned Val so easily in the woman’s company.
“I’ll go say hello to Beelzebub,” Mrs. FitzEngle volunteered.
“Mr. Windham.” The vicar bowed, then held out his hand. “A pleasure. Join us for services if you’re of a mind, but beware the choir. We sing with more ambition than ability.”
“Vicar.” Val bowed and accepted the man’s hand. It was a firm, thoroughly masculine handshake, leaving Val to wonder at the other vicars he’d met in his life time. Granted, it wasn’t a great number, but they all seemed old, stuffy, or effeminate somehow, at least when compared to this vicar.
Val sat sipping his lemonade for some minutes, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine, the occasional drone of a bee, the cocktail of spring fragrances wafting along on the breeze. An enormous, fluffy orange cat appeared from between the irises, blinked at Val, then sat and began its ablutions.
A man could write poetry here, he thought. Poetry… or music. A woodwind ensemble, or perhaps a dance suite for chamber strings.
“Mr. Windham?” Mrs. FitzEngle had come back around the corner of the cottage, and was regarding him quizzically. “You were quite lost in thought, sir. I take that as a compliment to my gardens. They encourage introspection, I believe. Would you like more lemonade?”
Wanting to prolong his visit with her—and with her soothing gardens too, of course—Val allowed her to refill his glass. She resumed her seat beside him, and merely sat, silent, gazing out across her gardens while Val let the cool, tart liquid slide down his throat.
“He’s a good man,” Mrs. FitzEngle said at length. “Vicar is a very good man.”
“He’s a trusting man,” Val allowed. “To leave you in my company, and me less than a day’s acquaintance from heaven knows where.”
“He sought my permission before he did that,” Mrs. FitzEngle said, mild reproof in her voice. “But as I am a widow, and considered slightly eccentric, he need hardly have done that much. I do, after all, have the key to the house you might be seeking to buy.”
She held more keys than that, Val suspected as he visually surveyed the gardens rioting with beauty.
“My apologies,” Val said quietly. “I did not seek to offend, but I have sisters, and I’ve always wondered: If other people’s brothers are as rackety as I, how can my sisters be safe even in polite society?”
“Are you so terrible as all that?” Mrs. FitzEngle asked, and though she was teasing, Val had the sense she was also posing a direct question.
“I am no debutante’s dream.” Particularly in the moods he’d fallen into since his brother’s death.
“But you are no debaucher of innocents,” his hostess said easily, crushing her sprig of lavender as she spoke. “You are merely sad and at loose ends.”
Val regarded her with a frown as the bracing sent of the crushed herb wafted to his nose. “Are you a witch, to be reporting a stranger’s sentiments to him so bluntly?”
“Ah.” Her smile came into evidence again. “Now I must make apology, Mr. Windham, for I did not mean to offend. I am most emphatically not a witch, and I will thank you not to start such talk, even in this modern age. I can see your eyes, though, and you’re looking for peace and quiet in the country. That suggests to me a need for healing, which is exactly how I came to be here.”
After her husband died, no doubt.
“What was it I said,” Val asked, needing to change the topic, “that created that bit of silence, earlier? My comment about women sharing in creation.”
Mrs. FitzEngle’s gaze sidled from his to once again regard her gardens. “That had to do with my own childless state, and the fact that the vicar’s wife wants more children than she has.”
Was there such a thing, anywhere in the world, Val wondered, as a truly happy marriage?
Val stood, and extended a hand to his hostess. “The vicar’s situation is none of my business, but I’m wondering if the manor house here might be. Will you show it to me?”
“Of course.” Mrs. FitzEngle rose, but to Val’s surprise, she left her hand in his, and lead him from the porch and up one of the walks that led toward the trees. “We’ll cut through the woods and be there in no time.”
It was decidedly strange to walk through the cool, green woods on a lovely spring afternoon—really almost evening—hand in hand with a woman he’d met less than an hour before. He’d taken off his riding gloves when he’d dismounted and Mrs. FitzEngle had taken off her gardening gloves when she’d first waved at them across the yard.
Her hand in his was warm, secure, and oddly comforting.
How long had it been, he mused as they strolled along in silence, since he’d held a woman’s hand?
“You are quiet,” his companion observed. “I like that, and I think the plants like it too, up to a point.”
“You eschew conversation? Do you have any idea how many years my mother spent, despairing that I would never have any conversation to offer her guests and their daughters? I used to be the brother my sisters did not want to have escorting them about, my brothers having either readier wit, better looks, or more skill on the dance floor than I—or all three.”
Mrs. FitzEngle paused and regarded him critically.
“It’s hard to imagine men more attractive than you, sir,” she said briskly, “much less several many of them.”
“You flatter me, Mrs. FitzEngle,” Val said, resuming their walk. He slipped her hand around his arm and covered that hand with his other hand. It was an equally companionable way to walk—and put her closer to his side.
“There it is.” Mrs. FitzEngle paused after a few more minutes of silent perambulations. Her soft floral scent enveloped him, and Val had to force himself to look at what held her gaze.
Pretty, was his first thought. The house was a mellow gray fieldstone, smaller than many country homes, but plenty large enough to serve as a gentleman’s country retreat. It was positioned on its plot to good advantage, occupying a slight rise, though the lawns were a disgrace, and the surrounding trees were threatening to swallow the structure whole.
“Since coming on to this property,” Val said, “I’ve had the sense of inhabiting a fairy tale. The overgrown lanes, your unbelievable gardens, the neglected house among the great oaks… I expect to see an old man in a pointed hat, or hear the animals conversing among themselves.”
“That’s good then,” Mrs. FitzEngle said. “Another man might see it as criminally neglected with a witch in the nearest tenant cottage. Shall we give it a closer look and see if your imagination can stand the reality?”
She let him take his time, walking around the entire outside of the house, then the stable, which, having been built with the elements in mind, was in surprisingly good repair. They entered the house through the kitchens and found the interior dusty, devoid of furniture, and in need of at least a good cleaning and airing.
“So far,” Val said, “I am not convinced the place is a disaster.”
The second floor, however, was enough to douse his optimism. The roof had lost the struggle with the elements, and water stains crept down the walls on two sides of the house. In almost every room, the ceiling betrayed evidence of water damage, and Val decided he could not ask Mrs. FitzEngle to show him the attics, which were likely inhabited by vermin, and unsafe.
“It needs rescuing,” Mrs. FitzEngle observed as they made their way back out into the fresh air. “And soon.”
“Most rescues have some urgency about them,” Val said mildly. “Though summer will soon be upon us.”
“But when, Mr. Windham, has it ever desisted from raining in this part of the world for more than a few days? The house has made a good effort, but it needs care if it’s to continue standing.”
Her hair was a lustrous red in the slanting sunshine. A touchable color. “You are fey, if you attribute effort to that stack of timber, stone and mortar.” He couldn’t help but smile as he spoke, and Mrs. FitzEngle apparently took no offense.
“Shall I return you to your horse?” she asked. “Or would you like to poke about a bit more?”
“To my horse,” Val replied. “Then to The Tired Rooster, where I’m sure all my prospective neighbors will spend the evening winkling the details of my day from me.”
“Are you thinking of buying the place?” Mrs. FitzEngle asked. Did Val detect a hint of studied disinterest in her voice? Well, she was a country woman. She was entitled to her bit of gossip.
“I don’t know. It appeals on some level I can’t quite understand. The location is a factor, since I’m far enough away from London here to be safe from casual guests, but I can get into Town on short notice if I need to. And the surrounds are pleasant. I suppose it will come down to price and terms.”
Mrs. FitzEngl slipped her fingers around Val’s elbow and steered him back toward the woods. “The present baron will be motivated to sell, as it’s the social season now, and he has need of coin to fund his excesses. Then in September, cubbing will start, then hunting, then the winter house parties, then perhaps a jaunt to the milder climes of Italy or Portugal. The man can spend money.”
“You do not appear to hold this man in particular esteem,” Val observed, liking the feel of her hand on his arm.
“I do not,” she replied on a sigh. “He isn’t completely profligate, not like some of the London dandies who bet on anything and must practice every vice to public excess. But Frederick is weak, and self-indulgent, and terribly spoiled. He is family by marriage, I feel no need to like him.”
“So what else does dear Freddy want,” Val asked, “that I might be able to offer him besides coin?”
They walked back through the towering oaks, the light coming down on dappled beams at the angle of early evening. For Val it felt like a moment out of time, so peaceful and lovely were the surroundings—and the company.
“Freddy is a climber,” Mrs. FitzEngle said. “He’s grandson to a baron and responsible for the succession. He hobnobs, and name drops, and thinks to marry above himself.”
He’ll sell to the son of duke on general principles, so the place is mine if I want it.
Which, Val found upon brief reflection, he very well might.
“I liked your Vicar Daniel,” Val observed after some strolling along in comfortable silence.
“I like him too,” Mrs. FitzEngle replied. “He’s certainly an improvement over the old vicar.” She shuddered on Val’s arm, and he wondered if the previous man of God had been less tolerant of barefoot, moonstruck widows.
“His predecessor must have been of a more conservative ilk?”
“He was wretched. Every time he opened his mouth, it seemed he was scolding someone for something they’d not even thought yet to do. His sermons were no better. I don’t believe I ever once heard that man use the words ‘pleasure’ or ‘joy’ in a homily.”
“So in a sense,” Val said, “all his successor had to do was be decent and friendly, and he’d be a well loved man.”
“I suppose,” Mrs. FitzEngle allowed. “Vicar Daniel does much more than that, as you can see. Not every vicar would come check on me just because I dodged services one week.”
“Oh?” Val paused in the act of raising a skeptical eyebrow, and studied a particular beam of sunlight, in which, for the love of God, two butterflies were flitting about. He was going to stroll out of this forest, trip over his beard, and find that twenty years had passed him by—though was a lovely twenty years they’d be.
“Your tone,” the lady replied with some heat, “implies that you are wondering if I am the vicar’s guilty pleasure. I assure you I am not.” She dropped her hand from his arm, and stomped away a few paces, stopping with her back to him.
The butterflies forgotten, Val considered the temper—and hurt—he observed in the set of her spine, and thought that if he were going to give offense, it should be for a better reason than the vicar’s honor.
“Mrs. FitzEngle…. Ellen.” He walked up behind her, and laid a bare hand on each of her shoulders. She tensed further at his touch, but didn’t bolt. “I am too much a gentleman to ever voice such an inquiry, but if the thought crossed my mind, it would only be because I envy the vicar his guilty pleasure, not because I judge him, or you, for it.”
She turned sharply, surprise on her pretty features. Her eyes were a soft brown—and puzzled.
When he bent his head and brushed his lips lingeringly across hers, she tasted neither surprised nor puzzled.
He closed his eyes and focused on the deepening kiss. Ellen FitzEngle tasted like a lonely, weary man’s every wish come true. Like peace and comfort, like joy and naked, unashamed pleasures. She tasted, in short, like paradise.