Chapter 1

The sun’s rays were sliding toward the horizon as Lucy Tolson folded the letter. A slight breeze dashed by and tried to snatch the paper from her.  Lucy tucked it into her pocket.  How long she had sat there, reading and considering that letter, she did not know. It had come earlier in the day, but she had refused to open it until she would be able to share it with her father for she knew the news it contained would not be welcome.

“It is as you said, Papa.  Uncle will take me in two months’ time if I have not found a suitable husband before that.”  Lucy  leaned her head against the coolness of her father’s headstone and spoke to the fresh mound of earth that covered him where he lay beside her mother.  Two months?  She shook her head.  She would be lucky if her uncle did not come for her within the week.  Not that he cared for her!  No, his interest in her, as it was in everything in his life, had always been mercenary. He had proven that long ago.

“I’ll not be separated from you, Papa.” She laid a hand on the earthen mound. “I could not abide living in his house with that woman and those children. And my money, Papa, you know he would not care for it as you have.  It would be gone within a card game along with my chances for a good match.”  She pulled her handkerchief from her pocket to catch her tears.  “I cannot go with him, Papa. You know what he is.”  She buried her face in the bit of cloth she held and let her grief and fears flow freely for a few moments.  Then, after several shuddering breaths, she lifted her face to her father’s marker once again.  “I will consider all you have told me.  I will make a good choice, and even if I am not loved as Mama was, I will be happy.”

“Miss Tolson?”  From a window in the church, Philip Dobney had seen the lady enter the graveyard and was worried when she had stayed for so long.  For the past few minutes, he had been watching her weep from the window as the sermon he had been practising sat neglected on a pew a few feet away. He knew that grief was a demanding master who ran roughshod over many, sometimes, leading them to consider all sorts of things they would not have considered when in a happier state.  And it was always strongest at first, so he knew that Lucy’s grief was great.  It had been but a few days since Mr. Tolson had been buried.  It was the first service of that sort which he had performed since accepting the living here in Kympton.

Lucy accepted his hand and with his help rose from where she knelt.  “I am well, Mr. Dobney.  I was just sharing some news with Papa.”  She dried her eyes and allowed him to guide her to the bench next to the church.

“Please call me Philip,” he said, taking a seat next to her.  “We have known each other for years, and at times such as these, I believe we can be less formal?” Indeed, Lucy and his sister Mary Ellen had been friends since before they were in leading strings.  His mother and Mrs. Tolson were often in each other’s gardens or sitting rooms when he was young.  They would have tea and stitch while their daughters would play.  More than once, he had been enlisted to help keep them from trouble so that their mothers could relax. They had been tolerably good and pleasant enough to have as companions for a while.  He and his friends had actually come to like having them around on occasion.

“Very well, but on Sundays and in company, I shall insist on calling you Mr. Dobney.” She smiled at him as she sniffled and stuffed her handkerchief into her pocket. “And you, of course, may call me Lucy.”  She drew a deep breath and released it. Her heart felt less heavy and oddly protected as she sat there with him. But then, that was how his presence had always made her feel.

“You have settled into the position of parson well.” She gave him a sidelong look.  “My father commented on how he has enjoyed your sermons these last few weeks. I believe he called them refreshing.”

“Lucy, I am here to offer comfort to you, not garner your praise.” He chuckled.

“Passing on my father’s praise gives me comfort.  It makes it seem less like he is gone.”

“Then, I shall attempt to receive his compliments graciously.”  He leaned back and looked toward the grave next to which she had been kneeling.  “You said you were sharing news with your father.  Is it anything with which I could be of assistance?”

She tilted her head and gave him a searching look.  She had promised her father that she would speak to each of the men on his list.  However, she had intended to do so with her Aunt Tess present, not while alone in a churchyard.

“Anything at all, Lucy,” he prompted.

Her cheeks grew warm, and she pulled up her shoulders and let them fall in a little shrug.  “There is nothing.” She paused, then allowed the rest of her thought to rush out before she could think better of it.  “Unless you wish to marry me or know of someone else who would be willing.”

Before he could respond to her comment, she pulled a  folded paper from her pocket.  “There is a list.”  She thrust it at him, keeping her eyes focused on the paper that wavered in her shaking hand.  She did not wish to see whatever expression he might be wearing.  “I made it with Papa just last week,” she explained.  “I listed all the gentlemen who were of marriageable age and according to my sources, looking to take a wife.”

Philip rolled his eyes as he began to unfold the paper.  By sources, she, no doubt, meant his sister.  Mary Ellen always seemed to know everything that was going on in their village.  She was not a gossip, but she was a listener with a keen memory, sharing what she had heard only when she felt it would benefit him in dealing with some person or situation.

“You will note,” said Lucy quickly as she watched his fingers smooth out the creases, “that most of the names have been crossed off.  In fact, Papa left only two choices whom he deemed acceptable, but since Mr. Pryce seems well on his way to speaking to Miss Burton’s father, I removed his name.  It can be added again should he be unsuccessful with Mr. Burton although that is highly unlikely.”   She bit her lip and swallowed nervously as he opened the final fold.

Philip scanned the list of names that had been scratched out .  There were little notes next to each with a reason for their removal.  As he reached the bottom of the list, his eyes grew wide as they read the one remaining name ─ Philip Dobney.

“There is a second list on the right.”  Lucy’s finger trembled slightly as she pointed to it.  “Reasons I would make an excellent parson’s wife.”

He looked at her and shook his head trying to grasp what was happening.

“Please, just read it,” she whispered.

So, he did.

She had been thorough and accurate.  There was not a thing on that list which was not true.  She was practical.  She was capable of finding solutions to problems ─ even ones others had deemed unsolvable.  She was seldom given to fits of nerves or swooning.  Things that had shocked his sister, had failed to rouse more than a laugh, a scold, or a suggestion for improvement of a prank from her.  But, he glanced at her, she had always been full of advice when asked.  He smiled as he returned his attention to the list and  saw that she had included that as second to last point on the list.

His breath caught in his chest and expected tears sprang to his eyes as he read the last point.  My father had confidence in me.  It was a statement that though short in length was filled with volumes of commentary on her character. Philip knew that Lucy’s father had relied on her heavily since her mother died three years ago, and Simon Tolson was an upstanding man who was revered by many, including Philip.  If Mr. Tolson had confidence in someone, there was a good reason.  Though the man was gracious and kind, his approval was hard earned.

Philip scanned the list one more time as he  thought.  He could not refute any of the points on the list, least of all the last one.  He began to refold the list.  If both Mr. Tolson and his daughter, who was much like her father, thought she would make him a good wife, then there was no doubt in his mind that she was well-prepared and would do him credit. It would do him well to, at least, consider it.

“You have heard of my uncle?”  Lucy asked quietly.

Philip nodded.  Lucy’s uncle was the only person he had ever heard his mentor, Mr. Harker, speak about harshly, and for good reason. Angus Tolson was the exact opposite of his brother ─ Cain and Able, Mr. Harker called them.  Where Simon sought to do what was right, Angus sought a way around it.

“I shall be required to go live with him at the end of two months’ time unless I have a husband.  I cannot abide him  and have no wish to live with him or his wife, nor do I  have a desire to take care of his children ─ I have met them, and they are quite unpleasant.”

Her voice grew stronger as she spoke of her uncle, and Philip watched her posture stiffen and her countenance grow agitated.

She turned toward him.  “And my money, which is supposed to go to my future husband, will, without a doubt, be gambled away.  It is what he does with any bit of money he receives.”

Desperation filled her eyes, and Philip could hear the fear that crept into her voice.

“I will then become useless to him ─ a burden.” Lucy tried to force away the panic that filled her.  “I will be given to whichever gentleman is willing to pay the highest price to have me as a wife.” She shook her head slowly.  “You are my only hope for a good match, but I would rather marry Mr. Gibson or Mr. Scott and turn a blind eye to a mistress than go to live with my uncle.”

His head bobbed up and down as he considered her words.  From the stories Mr. Harker had told him, her life with her uncle would be as bleak as she described. It was not something he wished for her.  The guilt of knowing he could have saved her from such a fate but chose not to was not something he wished to endure, and he was certain that his sister would make sure he felt his guilt keenly.  He finished folding the paper and then looked into her desperate eyes.  How could he refuse her when to see her so fearful caused his chest to constrict and his heart to hurt?  She needed a husband, and he did need a wife.  Mr. Harker had been impressing that on him for some time.  He saw no reason why it should not be Lucy.  She had proven her qualifications, and although she was not a beauty, her features and figure were pleasing and womanly.

“There is one thing missing from your list.”  He handed it back to her.  Her brows drew together in confusion.  “I should like to know if you think we could enjoy the intimacy of marriage.”

Her eyebrows shot up in surprise, and her mouth popped open.

“I would not have expected you to know or to have actually written such a thing on your list, of course.”  He felt his ears growing warm.  “But, I should like to know before I agree to marry you that there could at least be a small amount of attraction between us beyond the friendship we have always shared. So, I must kiss you.”  And without allowing her time to think or argue, he did just that.

He had expected it to be pleasant, but he had not expected to have to fight to keep his arms from drawing her near.  Nor had he expected to find it so very difficult to break away from her.  In fact, he found he needed a moment after ending the kiss before he was certain his voice would be even close to normal. He stood and straightened his coat before offering her his hand.  “I shall have Mr. Harker call the banns.  We marry in three weeks.”

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