Hot Under the Collar (Lords of Lancashire #2)

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Despite the old saw about third sons being destined for the church, no one ever expected the rakish, irresponsible Walter Langston to take up the collar, least of all himself. After an accident renders him unfit for military service, however, he has few other options. When he’s given the post of vicar at a parish church in a sleepy, coastal village, he’s convinced he’ll molder in obscurity. Instead, his arrival brings a sudden resurgence in church attendance…or at least, the attendance of female parishioners. As word of the eligible young vicar spreads, every well-heeled family for miles with a marriageable daughter fills his pews, aiming to catch his eye. Unfortunately for these hopeful members of his flock, Walter’s eye has already been caught—by the one woman who doesn’t come to church on Sundays.

Artemisia Finch left a lucrative career as a celebrated member of London’s demimondaine to care for her ailing father. Returning home hasn’t been easy, though, as her past isn’t even a well-kept secret in the village. When the new vicar arrives on her doorstep, Artemisia is determined to send him on his merry, pious way. But Walter Langston is nothing like any man of the cloth she’s ever known—he’s funny, irreverent, handsome, and tempting as sin. Falling in love with a vicar would be a very bad idea for a former courtesan. Why does this one have to be so hot under the collar?


Chapter One

Cumbria, England—May, 1803

The good Lord had a devilish sense of humor. That was the only possible explanation for the series of events that had led, inexorably, toward Walter Langston’s current predicament.

To be fair, there was nothing amusing in the accident that had brought an abrupt end to his nascent—albeit not terribly promising—military career. If he had been shot in the arse or even the foot, the story would at least have made good fodder for post-prandial gatherings, but when the errant bullet struck one’s collarbone and left one with less than full use of the adjoining arm, there wasn’t a great deal to laugh about.

He could, of course, have continued in the army despite his disability, but the truth was, he hadn’t wanted to. Having been successfully shot at once by mistake, Walter had little inclination to put himself in a position where he was guaranteed to be shot at on purpose. A single encounter with a projectile was enough to last a lifetime. It had certainly come close enough to ending that lifetime.

Unfortunately, he had been equally disinclined upon his recovery to return to the life he’d led prior to purchasing his commission. It was one thing to live off the largesse of an older, titled sibling at twenty three or twenty four and quite another at nearly thirty. Walter had required a profession. The military option was now closed and murdering both his older brothers—not to mention two small nephews of whom he was rather fond—in order to come into the viscountcy was quite out of the question. That left only one remotely acceptable option. The one to which he, as the third son of an aristocrat, had purportedly been born, but which he had misspent the majority of his youth proving himself unfit for.

Walter Langston, who had never in his life been a model of either piety or propriety, was now a vicar.

He had, however, reconciled himself to this particular anomaly some time ago. His real problem stemmed not from his vocation—if it could even be called that—but from the fact that every week since his arrival, the size of his congregation had multiplied by leaps and bounds, until the pews of St. Mary’s were filled to bursting. This Sunday, his eleventh, he had gazed from the pulpit upon an audience that far exceeded the entire population of the tiny coastal village of Grange-Over-Sands.

This might be an enviable feat for many a clergyman, but Walter was well aware that the growth in church attendance had little to do with his powers of oratory or ministry and everything to do with his marital status.

An unmarried vicar, it seemed, must be in want of a wife.

And that was precisely his dilemma. Every Sunday after the service, he must run a growing gauntlet of dewy-eyed, dough-faced young ladies and their hopeful mamas and papas, who inevitably pressed him to come to their homes for tea; for dinner; for a lawn party; for no reason at all save the pleasure of his delightful company. By the time he reached the parish house, he was always horrified by the realization that once again, in an effort to appear polite and avoid offense, he had accepted every single invitation. This placed him in the unfortunate position of appearing to have a possible romantic interest in nearly every marriageable female in the surrounding countryside when, in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Not to mention that the whirlwind of social activity during the week inevitably left him no time to write his sermon, which in turn meant he stayed up well into the early hours of Sunday morning to finish it.

This Sunday, he had determined, would be different. He would not succumb to his naturally accommodating disposition, but would resolutely rebuff all overtures on the grounds that to do otherwise would be to neglect his duty to the church.

As he exited the double doors from the vestibule and into the throng that awaited him on the front steps, he reminded himself that just because he would prefer to have dinner anywhere but in the vicarage—Mrs. Graham, whose services had come with the post at St. Mary’s, was a more-than-competent housekeeper, but only barely tolerable as a cook—was no excuse to forego his course of action. Never mind that she would undoubtedly feed him something that would somehow achieve the feat of being simultaneously soggy and dry, and that she would press a second and third helping on him which he would be forced to choke down rather than hurt the poor woman’s feelings.

He made his way through the crowd, rejecting each proposed gathering with what he hoped was perceived as gracious regret, each time wincing internally as he recalled exactly how delicious the last meal he had consumed in that particular home had been. Resisting temptation was, however, good for the soul, not to mention excellent fodder for next Sunday’s sermon.

Walter had got to the bottom step and was conveying his apologies to the last disappointed family when he caught sight of her out of the corner of his eye.

She had been there every Sunday since he’d first arrived in Grange-Over-Sands, but she never entered the church…or even the church grounds. Instead, she parked the simple, one-horse cart she drove outside the gate and waited for Horace Finch, an elderly gentleman who attended each service alone, to make his slow, painstaking way across the churchyard. When he reached the cart, she got down from her seat, took his cane and helped him up, and then the two of them drove away.

From the first week, she had intrigued him. He told himself it wasn’t simply because she was beautiful. In all honesty, since he had never seen her at a distance of less than fifty feet, it would be difficult to say that she was beautiful. All he could say with certainty was that she was slim, tall for a woman, and blond, but she carried herself like a beautiful woman—erect, elegant, and at ease.

Who was she? And why didn’t she attend the service with the devout Mr. Finch? Walter had speculated at first that she might be an employee, perhaps a nurse or some other caregiver, but after watching the two of them interact for several weeks, he had concluded that was unlikely. There was a tenderness between them that belied a paid relationship, which left only a familial one. But that answer only deepened the mystery, because surely a daughter or granddaughter or niece would come to services.

And then there was that niggling sensation at the base of his skull. Familiarity. Even at fifty feet, he felt certain he recognized her. Though he could not fathom how that was possible.

“Wednesday, then?” Mrs. Thursby asked.

Walter blinked, jerking his attention back to the middle-aged woman who apparently thought his rejection of her initial invitation had been due to the proposed day of the week rather than, as he had clearly stated, a determination to attend to church business over social calls.

“I’ll have Mrs. Jenkins make her roast duck and french beans,” she added hopefully, casting a sidelong glance at Miss Thursby.

The saucer-eyed, dark-ringleted girl couldn’t be past seventeen and wouldn’t have appealed to Walter’s taste even when he’d been seventeen. Mrs. Jenkins’ roast duck and french beans, however, were entirely to his taste.

“Yes, Wednesday will do nicely,” Walter heard himself say.

Damn and blast, he’d done it again. But at least he’d only done it once. And it meant he would get at least one decent meal this week.

Mrs. Thursby smiled broadly, looking more like a giddy adolescent than her daughter. In fact, Miss Thursby appeared less enthusiastic about his acceptance than her mother. Perhaps, Walter thought, he was no more to her taste than she was to his. It seemed he had chosen, by happy accident, precisely the right invitation to accept.

He said his goodbyes and turned away in time to see the cart carrying Horace Finch and his female companion pull away. As if she felt his regard, the woman cast a glance over her shoulder and their eyes met across the churchyard. His breath snagged in his lungs. This time it was more than familiarity that caught him off-guard.

It was desire. Hot, thick, and heavy.

He wanted her, whoever she was. And by one means or another, he meant to have her. In the most unholy ways imaginable.

 ***

Mrs. Graham set Walter’s Sunday luncheon—a day-old meat pasty and a cup of coffee—on the table in front of him. “Can I get you anything else, vicar?”

Walter crushed the urge to turn around and look for the vicar in question. He knew, of course, that he was a vicar, but he still hadn’t quite accustomed himself to being addressed as one.

“No, Mrs. Graham, this will be more than sufficient,” he said. This was not an understatement. He would be lucky to choke down half of it before his appetite was thoroughly quashed.

“I’ll be off to see to the evening meal, then.”

Walter held up his hand. “Before you go, I have a question for you.”

“By all means, vicar.”

He wished she would stop addressing him that way. Especially since the purpose of his question was utterly unvicarly.

“Who is the woman who drives Mr. Finch home from church every Sunday? And why she does not attend the service herself?”

The housekeeper, whose complexion ran to the ruddy, blanched as pale as a turnip. “Oh, that’s a right sordid story, it is. I’m sure it’s not at all fit for the ears of a man of the cloth.”

Walter arched an eyebrow. “I was not a saint before becoming a member of the clergy, nor did I become one thereafter. I assure you my collar will remain firmly in place after the hearing of the tale, no matter how shocking the details.”

Mrs. Graham pursed her lips. “Very well, then. That would be Miss Artemisia Finch, Mr. Finch’s daughter, and she does not come to church because women of her ilk are not welcome among the respectable folk of this town, not even on a cool Sunday in hell.”

Ilk, eh? Walter got the broad outlines of the picture, even if he didn’t quite fathom the details. “I see. Might I ask how she came to be…well, of that ilk?”

Some of the starch seemed to go out of the housekeeper’s posture. “Do you mind if I sit?”

“No, not at all,” Walter assured her, pulling out the chair around the corner of the small table at which he took his meals. Everything in the vicarage was small compared to what he’d been accustomed to back at Barrowcreek Park.

The round-faced woman plopped into the chair and smoothed her apron as she spoke. “You must ken, the Finches have always been a very well-respected family in the Grange. So when Miss Finch came up in the family way when she was but fifteen, no one was more surprised than I. She’d always seemed a nice, well-behaved girl despite Mr. Finch having to raise her on his own after his wife died birthing their second child, a boy who sadly didn’t survive, either.”

Mrs. Graham had begun to warm to her story and now leaned forward conspiratorially. “Now I see that not having a mother led Miss Finch to run wild. It seems she’d been having…” Here, the woman coughed delicately, her cheeks reddening again, “…relations with a number of young men, including the Earl of Sandhurst’s son. She claimed he was the babe’s father, but of course, no one could believe it when so many came forward to claim knowledge of her. Naturally, everyone expected her to do the decent thing and leave town to give birth, but instead, she was brazen enough to stay. When the babe was reported stillborn, there were plenty of folk who thought she probably smothered it so she could go on with her whoring ways without being saddled with a child.”

Walter took a sip of his coffee to cover his rising indignation. He did find the story most sordid, but probably not in the way Mrs. Graham expected. Whatever one might infer about Miss Finch’s morals or lack of thereof, she’d hardly managed to conceive a child without assistance. He was quite certain that the Earl of Sandhurst’s son had not been expected to slink away in shame at the revelation that he might have impregnated a girl who was barely more than a child, while she was considered beyond the pale for refusing to leave her home.

The housekeeper carried on blithely with her tale. “About a year after the babe was born, she finally had the sense to leave. We heard tell she went to London and became…well, not a woman of unblemished character. About two years past, after Mr. Finch had his first apoplexy, she come back home, but at least she doesn’t try to mingle with the respectable folk anymore.”

Walter set his cup back on the table as the pieces of the puzzle he’d been trying to solve since that first Sunday he’d seen Artemisia Finch clicked into place.

London, five years ago. If there had been a “Diamond of Season” designation for the demimondaine, it would have fallen to her that year. Tall, blonde and elegant, she exuded a cool reserve that was a thousand times more alluring than the more transparent tactics employed by her counterparts. She had recently parted company with the newly wed Duke of Stratton—her first and, as far as anyone knew, only lover—and every male in Town with a full purse and an empty bed hoped to be her next protector.

Walter had attended a few events at which she had been present and admired her from afar. Pursuing her for himself had not been an option. As the third son of a viscount who had just spent the vast majority of his income on the purchase of his ill-fated commission, he had nothing to offer her. He was a crow to her swan. A mortal to her goddess.

A goddess who had gone by a single name. Artemisia.

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