Here’s a short short story that I hope to turn into a proper length novella one day, but meanwhile, I thought you’d like to read it! It’s loosely connected to Potent Pleasures, the very first book I wrote. The Earl and Countess of Sheffields and Downes mentioned are Alex and Charlotte! I hope you love the characters as much as I do. –Eloisa
“It is my firm belief that the earl is squandering money by supporting this performance,” Harriet Pettigrew declared. “As you know, Mr. Marlowe, I have no patience with people of quality squandering their money on trifles. It sets an unfortunate precedent for their inferiors. Do you not agree?”
Luckily, Harriet was not a young woman who needed much prompting to air her views, and she remained unperturbed by her soon-to-be husband’s inattention. “I assure you, Mr. Marlowe, that I shall encourage no such vanities when I am the mistress of this rectory. Now I know, dear sir, that you are quite unable to reprove such an old friend.”
She paused for a moment to consider how delightful it was to be marrying a man who was close friends with the Earl of Sheffield and Downes. “But as your wife, I must promote virtue above sin,” she added importantly. “Next year I shall simply point out – kindly, mind you – that people are better preached out of their follies than entertained by more follies. Do you not agree, Mr. Marlowe?”
There was a pause as David Marlowe realized that he had missed a cue. “Yes indeed,” he said hastily.
“What on earth are you finding so interesting at the window? There’s naught there but a clutch of tombstones. Falling over, all of them. I assure you, Mr. Marlowe, when I am mistress of this rectory, the sexton will have to do better than that. Each of those stones will face straight ahead in an organized fashion.”
David hastily swung about, but it was too late.
“My goodness, how very peculiar,” Harriet exclaimed. “That is Miss Boch, is it not? What on earth is she doing?”
“Teaching the children, I believe.”
“She – she’s sitting on a tombstone!”
“It appears so.”
“She ought to know better! The daughter of a marquis, even if he is French. I can think of nothing more insalubrious than dragging those young innocents into a graveyard. I shall speak to her at once! Letty,” she said to her maid, “Stay where you are.” Suiting action to word, Harriet marched from the room.
David and Letty both stayed where they were, Letty in the corner, and David leaning against the window frame. Bridget Boch was indeed sitting on a tombstone. She and the children had spread out some bread, obviously hoping that a bird would snatch a crumb or two.
At the moment she was leaning forward, holding out her palm to a crow recklessly considering a free lunch. Pale sunlight streaked her hair with shining threads, as if pure gold were woven into the strands. She looked deliciously absurd, perched on a mossy tombstone. “I’d eat from her hand,” David thought suddenly. And caught himself. What was he thinking? He was practically a married man.
His future wife advanced through the graveyard like an avenging angel in serviceable cambric. The crow cocked its head and flew straight into a tree; Bridget laughed and said something to the children. It wasn’t her beauty, David thought. It was Bridget herself, that odd combination of elegant high cheekbones and a chuckling, infectious laugh.
He really ought to join the graveyard set. After all, those were his parishioners, small though they were, who had hastily scrambled up from the ground and were milling about as Harriet laid down the law.
And Bridget, of course, was still laughing. She often laughed, he thought with an odd twinge, watching as the children caught the giggles, and Harriet’s back grew straighter and more outraged. The little group turned and began trailing back to the rectory. David didn’t know much about women’s apparel, given only dim memories of his sisters’ rapturous greetings of the latest fashion plates. But it didn’t take a modiste to compare Bridget’s scanty morning dress, all airy lace that somehow clung tightly to her slim body, to his fiancée’s sturdy gown, made high to the throat and loose to the toes. He shook himself.
Bridget was holding one small urchin by the hand and nodding, solemnly agreeing to Harriet’s proclamations. His mouth quirked. As a rector, David could recognize false repentance better than most.
With a sigh, he sat down before his desk. Sure enough, the door burst open two seconds later and Harriet reentered.
“I was correct,” she said triumphantly. “Miss Boch was actually leading a bible class! She is now saying farewell to those poor children – we must hope that they live to take another class, given the insalubrious air in the graveyard – and she will be here shortly. You must point out the error of her ways, sir. The error of her ways.”
“Hmm,” David said. He was vexed to find that his heart was beating faster at the very idea that Bridget would soon enter the room. The discovery made him irritable, and he pushed away from his desk and strolled over to the fireplace.
“I do wish you would agree to wear proper clerical garb during the week,” Harriet said pettishly. “My father is never seen outside his bishop’s robes, I assure you. Clerical garb lends a touch of authority. Miss Boch” – and she lowered her voice – “Miss Boch has something of an impudent air about her. I fear she does not show you the respect that you are due, as rector of one of the largest and most wealthy parishes in London.”
“I have noticed nothing out of the way,” David said flatly.
“Well, I have,” Harriet said. But she seemed unable to continue, and the room lapsed into silence.
Bridget entered with a little gleam in her eyes that had, she assured herself, absolutely nothing to do with the fact that she had been summoned into the study. “Good afternoon, Mr. Marlowe,” she said, curtesying.
The vicar bowed. “Miss Boch.”
She sighed. By what right did the man have those sooty black eyes, being a man of the church?
David cleared his throat. “Miss Pettigrew believes that the graveyard is not a healthy place for children.”
“I was teaching them about Francis of Assisi,” Bridget explained.
David raised an eyebrow. “You were hoping that an old black crow would mistake you for a saint and eat from your hand?”
Bridget met his eyes and a shock of warmth went down her spine. She opened her mouth and closed it again.
“Assisi?” Harriet demanded. “Who is that? A Roman Catholic of some sort?”
“As it happens, yes,” Bridget replied, turning composedly to her.
“We’ll have none of those Catholics in this parish,” Harriet stated. “You’ll frighten the children, Miss Boch. No doubt, with your…interesting childhood, talk of boiling oil does not affect you. But English children have much more sensibility than do the French.”
Bridget bit her lip. She ought not to lose her temper, even if she did think that the pinched and unpleasant Harriet Pettigrew would make her favorite vicar a terrible wife. “Francis of Assisi had nothing to do with boiling oil,” she pointed out. “He greatly loved animals, so much so that birds ate from his hand.”
Harriet indicated with one twitch of her lip what she thought of saints who frolicked in the barnyard. “Birds – nay, all animals — have no place in the life of children. Your task, Miss Boch, is to teach the orphans to behave in a manner that behooves their station. They must learn to be neat and clean, and sit still at all times.”
“Only two months ago, the children were living on the streets of London,” Bridget protested mildly.
Harriet shuddered. “The less said about that the better. And certainly not in our presence!”
“Why not?” Bridget asked. “And I do not consider my task to be teaching them to sit still,” she added. “I was teaching a bible class, not a lesson on deportment.”
“Nowhere in the English Bible does it advocate touching filthy animals,” Harriet announced.
“True,” Bridget murmured. She couldn’t stop herself. She looked at David again. He was standing before the mantelpiece, brown curls tumbling over his eyes.
“I believe Miss Pettigrew has a point,” he said, his deep voice sending a shiver down her spine. “The children will hardly learn to summon birds in a mere half hour.”
“I was hoping to make Francis seem alive to them.”
“Alive! That is precisely the argument that you used to convince the earl to provide support for this – for this medieval play,” Harriet exclaimed. “The very idea of making Noah seem alive is grotesque.” Her eyes narrowed. “And since we are on the subject, I have a feeling that this play is not all it should be. Mr. Cents told me that it was quite humorous. Humorous is not an appropriate adjective for a biblical performance!”
David met Bridget’s eyes and was horrified to find that he almost returned the smile dancing in her eyes. “My dear Miss Pettigrew,” he said, turning to his fiancée, “I do not think we have need for…for suspicion. The biblical cycle plays have been an old and honored part of church ceremonies for over two hundred years. And more to the point, the Noah play will be over by tomorrow night.”
Harriet had caught the look that passed between her betrothed and that French hussy, Miss Boch. An angry flush rose up her sallow cheek. “I simply wish to point out that you might review that production before it is staged, Mr. Marlowe! I don’t care if it is a medieval play. The performance is in your own rectory. My father would never allow a play to be produced under his own roof!”
“Be that as it may,” David said, straightening up, “I believe we should continue this discussion at some other time.”
Harriet glacially bowed her head. “Naturally, I must agree with everything you say, Mr. Marlowe. But –“ she continued irresistibly – “please note that the play will damage your reputation, should there be anything the least indelicate about it. Many people of quality, including my own father, are attending.”
“In fact, the tickets have all been sold,” Bridget said, rather more happily than was advisable. “I expect we shall make enough money to support the orphans for the entire coming year.”
Harriet sniffed. “I was taught as a child that ladies do not discuss fiscal matters, Miss Boch. But I daresay that was not the case during your childhood.”
“Since I do not remember my mother, the marchioness,” Bridget replied, “I cannot answer to that.”
Harriet’s jaw tightened. “You know perfectly well that I am alluding to the years you spent as a…a baker’s daughter!”
David intervened. “I am pleased to hear that excellent attendance is expected tomorrow,” he said repressively.
“We must simply hope that the audience will not be so offended that they leave in high dungeon,” Harriet snapped back. “You may not be aware, Miss Boch, but my future husband is very likely to be appointed archdeacon in the near future. My own father, the Bishop of Rochester, feels that his current archdeacon is rather unstable, being an unmarried man. The Bishop is paying a visit to London precisely to further his acquaintance with Mr. Marlowe. Come, Letty.” And she swept from the room.
David turned to his guest. “May I escort you to your maid, Miss Boch?”
“Mary is in the kitchen with Mrs. Mowbray. I am persuaded that she is quite happy for the moment.” Bridget drifted closer, finally perching on the very edge of his desk. “I am sorry to have overset Miss Pettigrew.”
David knew very well that he should usher the young woman out of his study, or at the least, summon her maid.
He stayed where he was.
At close range, her eyes were not blue but an unsettling navy color, far too intelligent for a young miss of eighteen.
She repeated, “I am sorry for provoking your betrothed. It is the fault of my particular deadly sin.”
And then, at his questioning look, “Envy. Miss Pettigrew is so very sure of herself, whereas I am always uncertain. In fact, I am mortifyingly sure that I am often wrong.” She smiled, a delightfully lopsided smile. “Quite through no fault of her own, Miss Pettigrew’s self-command makes me envious.”
David had the largest, most beautiful hands she had ever seen.
He caught her glance and looked down. Bridget blushed. “I was just thinking that you have unusual hands for a scholar.”
“Not scholar’s hands,” David said. “They are farmer’s hands. My father is a squire, you know. He comes from a long line of yeoman’s stock.”
An odd little silence fell in the room.
David knew every detail about the oh-so-beautiful Bridget: the way her bright hair lay sleek and smooth against her head, the delicate peachy color of her cheek, the way she wore no rings or, indeed, no jewelry of any kind. He was also well aware that studying a young lady who had just completed her first triumphant Season on the marriage mart was no activity for a relatively penniless vicar. Even though the young lady had reportedly refused each marriage proposal she received.
“Are you perturbed about the Noah play, sir?” she asked abruptly. “Because it is an…an entertaining play. Miss Pettigrew might – well, she might have a point.”
David raised an eyebrow. “Indeed? What could be indelicate about Noah and his ark?”
Bridget bit her lip. How could she explain the germ of obstinate rebellion that had led her to suggest this particular play? “I wanted the children to – to –“
“See Noah as a living person?”
“Exactly,” she said gratefully.
“How lively is Noah?”
The color in her cheeks was turning crimson, David noticed with amusement. She raised her eyes and, as always, the clear beauty there shook him to the core.
“I fear that Noah becomes a trifle…inebriated,” she said. “As it says in the Bible,” she added hastily. “You see, this particular play was originally performed by ale-makers, in the Middle Ages, that is.”
David swore. “The Noah play – Noah is a drunk?”
“Not a drunk,” Bridget said unhappily. “He merely drinks a bit too much. But I am afraid that Mr. Higgins is interpreting his part rather liberally.”
“I should have paid more attention.” He knew well why he hadn’t attended any rehearsals. It was Bridget’s way of drifting toward him and making him feel slightly inebriated. If Noah was drunk, he was drunker.
Drunk on her hair and her eyes and her slim delight and her laugh.
Sobered by his fiancée and his bank account and his altogether ineligible status. That thought made his tone sterner than it would have been. “Tell me, Miss Boch, what are you doing here?”
“You don’t belong in the rectory,” he said bluntly. “Young ladies of fashion appear in church only on Sunday, wearing their very best new gown. Yet you are teaching a class to the orphans, you are a member of the sewing circle, and you have entered into the parish’s fund-raising efforts, to the extent of staging a drunk biblical character.”
“When I was growing up, we took an active part in our parish. My…my adopted mother taught the local bible class. And as for teaching orphans – until my brother found me and brought me to England, I was an orphan. So I have a special affection for the children.”
“It is commendable that the woman who raised you was active in her parish,” David pointed out. “But she was a baker’s wife.” He stopped short.
There was an angry gleam in Bridget’s eyes. “I find it hard to believe that you would dissuade ladies from participating in parish affairs, sir. Are only baker’s wives allowed to teach bible classes, then?”
“No!” David knew he was making a mess of it. He never was any good at talking to women. “You know that there are many ladies active in this parish. And I am very grateful for them. It’s just that you are supposed to be busy with other things.”
Bridget was carefully arranging his quills in a row. All he could see of her head was a gleaming sweep of hair. “You think I should be sitting at home tatting a handbag, is that it?”
“Well, or attending a champagne breakfast,” David said lamely. “Later, when you are married and have children of your own, then you will undoubtedly be –“ he broke off. He could hardly say that she wasn’t welcome in her own parish.
“You are by far the youngest woman in the sewing circle. And you don’t look the same as the other women.” He had had the shock of his life, the previous week, when he stopped by the charity sewing circle and found Bridget perched amongst the substantial, gossiping dowagers. Granted, she was laughing and chattering as if she were thoroughly at home.
Bridget looked up and the deep anger in her blue eyes startled him. “I do not wish to spend the morning embroidering flowers onto a reticule that I would never carry. I do not wish to attend champagne breakfasts. I don’t care for alcoholic drinks, especially in the morning.”
David stared at her.
“I don’t wish to go to a waltzing party in the afternoon, either,” she said fiercely. “I don’t mean to say that I dislike dancing. I like dancing, occasionally. I do like wearing beautiful clothing. But I have no interest in changing my gown ten times a day!”
He blinked. “Well, why would you?”
“Don’t you have any idea what the life of a lady is like?”
“You…you go shopping. Dress elegantly, go dancing, perform music and, and -“
“And find a husband!” she completed his sentence. Then she stood up. “I am sorry that you find I am an inappropriate addition to your parish, Mr. Marlowe. I certainly did not mean to inconvenience you.” Her tone was as arctic as the north wind.
“Miss Boch, I never meant to make you unwelcome.” He searched for words and found none.
Bridget was pinning on her hat. “I shall not bother you in the future. I had no idea that church activities in England were reserved for those over forty years old. This is not the case in France, I assure you.”
He took a hasty step toward her. “I didn’t mean –“
“I know what you meant,” she said rather shakily. “You and your fiancée think that I am a bad influence, too French, too much the baker’s daughter – oh, who cares at any rate!” There were tears in her voice. “I shall not vex you any further.”
But David grabbed her arm as she turned to the door. “No!”
“What on earth are you doing, sir?” She pulled her arm from his.
David couldn’t stand that her eyes were bright with tears. “Bridget,” he said, voice husky. “Oh God, Bridget.”
Her mouth was as sweet as he had imagined, and his own was twice as needy. He forgot he was a man of the church, forgot that he was the second son of a squire, and forgot that his income was limited to that of a large (if prosperous) parish. He pulled her sweetly scented body against his and crushed her mouth under his. A simple action, and one that he had been irresponsibly dreaming about ever since Bridget Boch walked through his rectory door some five months before.
She didn’t struggle. She didn’t slap his face, or bite his lip. Or scream for help. She opened her mouth to his and her slim curves melted against his body. And then one hand came shyly up to his cheek and the other clung to his neck.
A silent conversation it was, spoken in a language of tongues, pressing bodies, and small inarticulate noises. His lips danced over her cheekbones, and pressed shut the thick fringe of eyelashes…let go only because he wanted to see her navy blue eyes again. But when she opened her eyes, they were so beautiful that he bent to her mouth again, kissed it with all the silent desire that had coursed through his bones since the moment he saw her.
“Bridget,” he said. His voice was dark with longing.
She looked up at him, her body still cradled against his. “David.” She saw the moment that rationality flooded back into his eyes, and she put a finger over his lips. “Don’t. I know you are marrying another woman. I know…I know I don’t belong in your parish. I shall find some other –“
He swallowed her sentence in another kiss. She emerged pink-cheeked, aware that her knees were trembling, aware that his large hands had shaped her body into a shrieking mass of nerves.
“We – we mustn’t,” she whispered, stepping back. She looked about in a daze, found her bonnet on the floor and picked it up with trembling fingers. “I must come to the performance of the Noah play tomorrow night,” she said. “The cast is counting on me, as I am their prompter. But I will not bother you again.”
David reached out, and his hands fell away. He had nothing to offer her. Even if he were free, how could he approach her brother, a French marquis, and ask for her hand in marriage?
She looked at him, beautiful eyes no longer dazed, but sober. “You see,” she whispered, “my deadly sin is envy. I cannot stay here, and watch Miss Harriet Pettigrew take the thing I want most in the world.” Her aching words fell softly into the room.
“Bridget.” His voice was unsteady. “If your sin is envy, then mine must be lust. For I want you more than anything I have wanted in my life.”
Bridget looked away and took a deep breath. “Sir, perhaps I will see you at the performance.” She curtsied, never looking at him, and left the room.
The room was a mass of babbling gentlefolk when David looked into the rectory’s great hall the following evening. The many chairs arranged before a makeshift stage were all occupied, and gentlemen were standing along the back and sides of the room. He threaded his way to the front to greet his betrothed. Harriet had obviously made a special effort this evening. She was wearing a ruby colored dress trimmed with orange satin leaves around the bosom. The color suited her dark hair and coloring. In fact, Harriet was rather beautiful in her own way, he thought miserably. He bowed and kissed her hand.
“My father, Mr. Marlowe,” Harriet said fussily. “Of course, you know each other.” David had had a rather unpleasant interview with the bishop when he asked for Harriet’s hand in marriage, given that Harriet’s father required assurance that David would make every effort to become a bishop.
“And this is my father’s archdeacon, Mr. Bell,” Harriet announced.
David bowed again. Mr. Bell was a tall man who looked to great advantage in clerical garb. He didn’t look in the least ‘unsteady,’ as Harriet had called him. To David’s mind, he looked a far more plausible bishop than he himself was likely to be.
“We are looking forward to this evening,” the bishop said ponderously. “Although the Anglican Church has frowned upon the cycle plays since the days of dear Queen Elizabeth.”
“I believe the Elizabethans felt that the appearance of our heavenly creator on stage was particularly abhorrent,” Mr. Bell remarked, leaving no doubt about what his own feelings were.
When David remained silent, Harriet rushed to his defense. “I am quite certain there will be no such desecration in this play,” she said importantly. “We might hear a voice, perhaps, but there is no reason for someone to actually impersonate the divine.”
David bowed a third time. “I shall make certain the preparations are proceeding satisfactorily,” he said.
“We have a seat for you just here,” his betrothed replied, indicating the seat beside her.
He saw Bridget as soon as he entered the makeshift dressing room behind the hall. She was laughing up at plump man dressed what looked like two white sheets.
David walked over to them. “Good evening, Mr. Brisket,” he said pleasantly.
Bridget started and looked at him. She turned back to Mr. Brisket. “Do you think it will be quite stable, sir, or would you like a few more pins?”
“Goodness, miss, if you put any more pins into my gown, I’m like to clank as I walk,” Mr. Brisket said comfortably. “And hello to you, rector.”
Bridget walked away with a backward glance at David. He swallowed. “What part are you playing, Mr. Brisket?”
“Well, I’m a lucky one, I am,” the butcher replied. “Can’t you guess then, sir?”
David’s heart was sinking.
“I’ll give you a bit o’my lines,” Mr. Brisket announced. Then in a fine, plummy tone, he said: “Behold, I will destroy them with the earth.”
“You’re God,” David replied hollowly.
“Trust you to catch it!” Mr. Brisket said. “I’m a bit worried about forgetting the bits about the length of the ark: three hundred cubits, it is, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. Well, I reckon Miss Boch will remind me, if I forget. She’s a splendid young lady, she is.”
David nodded, looking around. Bridget was pinning a large bow in place.
“That’s Mrs. Noah. She’s a bit of a shrew,” chuckled Mr. Brisket. “This is a right lively play, rector. These medieval people must have been a spirited bunch. No doubt but what it’ll be a success. We’re having a second performance tomorrow night, did you know that?”
David shook his head.
“Yep, all the tickets got bought up by the gentry, which is good for those poor orphans, of course. But we’d like a chance to have our relatives see it as well. So we’re having another performance tomorrow night, half price, just for people like meself. Now isn’t that a splendid thing?”
“Absolutely,” David managed. God was a butcher in a sheet; Noah was a drunk; Noah’s wife was a shrew. And the audience was full of the worst tattlemongers in all London, people who could stir up a scandalbroth without the slightest encouragement. Lord knows what they would do when a bishop and an archbishop left the performance in a fury.
He should be desperate. Yet…and yet. Bridget was hugging one of the orphans, who was holding up his finger and weeping.
David made his way through the room. She had made it clear that she wanted nothing to do with him, but he couldn’t seem to stop himself. “What seems to be the matter?” he asked.
“Freddy was nibbled on by the calf,” Bridget said, without looking up at him.
Then she did glance up. “Didn’t you know that there are animals in the performance?”
He just looked back at her, and color mounted in her cheeks.
“Only a very few,” she said hastily. “They represent the animals entering the ark, obviously. There are two kittens, and one puppy, and Mr. Brisket very kindly brought two rabbits and a calf from his butcher shop. Oh, and a few chickens.”
“Where are they?” It was beyond a disaster. It was doom, pure and simple. Irrationally, David was beginning to enjoy himself.
“They’re in the next room,” Bridget said, rather puzzled.
Just then David heard a distinct lowing noise. “Is that calf in my study?”
“No!” She looked even more surprised at the twinkle in his eye.
David had just remembered how very much his fiancée detested animals, and how strong her views were of their rightful place.
“Well, it appears that everything is going quite well here,” he said, smiling down at the clearly astonished Bridget. He looked around. The room was crowded, but everyone was busy either pinning costumes or rehearsing their lines. He bent down and swiftly kissed her lips.
She colored and shot him an outraged look. “Have you lost your mind?” she said furiously.
“Found it, I think,” he said cheerfully. “I believe I will join my future bride in the front row.”
Bridget ground her teeth together. Never, ever would she darken the door of this church again. The rector clearly thought she was a light-skirt, kissing her in the same breath in which he talked about his betrothed.
“Do give Miss Pettigrew my best wishes,” she said. “I hope she will not be scandalized by the performance.”
David bowed. “To be honest, Miss Boch, I fear the worst.”
Bridget bit her lip. What on earth was going on ? “It’s not that bad a play,” she said anxiously. “Mr. Higgins seems to be quite sober tonight.“
“Oh, yes,” David said. “Where is Noah?”
Bridget turned around. “Oh, dear,” she said quietly.
Mr. Higgins was a great red-haired man wearing a flimsy tunic, the sewing circle’s idea of biblical garb. At the moment he was hoisting a great bottle of ale in the air and, as they watched, he drained a good eight ounces.
“He takes his role very seriously,” Bridget said.
“I think I shall have a word with him.”
She watched his back as David walked away, stopping to exchange greetings here and there. Even his back was dear to her: his broad shoulders under all that black cloth, and the way his curls tumbled about, looking absolutely unclerical. And the way that he was such a caring priest, for all he didn’t look or act the part. Tears rose in her throat and Bridget swallowed. Once she got through this evening, she would never enter the rectory again.
David had reached Mr. Higgins and seemed to be ushering him out of the room. Likely he would take him to his study to sober up, Bridget thought miserably.
At first, it seemed that the Play of Noah was going remarkably smoothly. The curtain opened promptly at eight-thirty, and the little girl who lisped the prologue was declared to be adorable by the entire crowd. Her thanks to the Earl and Countess of Sheffield and Downes, who had paid for the costumes and the refreshments following the performance, was greeted with loud applause.
Bridget sat at the left corner of the stage, just inside the curtain, in case someone forgot his lines. It seemed to her that Noah behaved very well during God’s visit. Of course, anyone would have been surprised by such an encounter, and only the most exacting of critics could say that Noah overreacted by temporarily swooning. True, God’s fluffy halo (fashioned out of a quantity of cotton batting) fell to the side at one point and swung from an ear, but he discovered it soon enough and put it back with a chuckle. More importantly, he remembered every one of his lines, even the difficult ones about the Ark’s cubits of length.
It was a shame that she couldn’t see the front row from where she sat. She would have liked to know whether David was joining in the great shouts of laughter that swept the room as Noah’s wife scolded him for wasting his time building a ship. And scolded him for bringing messy animals into the room. And scolded him for being a worthless bubble-brain (Mrs. Noah was clearly carried away by the spirit of the moment. Bridget almost put her script aside).
There was a dicey moment when the calf shifted all her weight to Noah’s foot. But while one could wish that his language were not quite so colorful, the audience seemed to greet his explosion with great delight.
The cast made it through the ocean journey with great aplomb. The audience had taken to roaring with laughter every time Mrs. Noah even opened her mouth, and a hopeful sense was growing in Bridget’s stomach. Perhaps the evening would pass without incident, and she could leave knowing that her beloved orphans would be well funded for the next year, at least.
The dove (a cleverly fashioned piece of cardboard) hopped onto Mount Ararat; the ark landed; the animals were escorted off the stage. Unfortunately Noah dropped the chicken he was holding and it flapped into the audience. Bridget heard a screech. The bird must have startled someone. But then the hubbub died down and the actors went back to their parts, winding up the Noah play.
Noah was drinking from a hip flask with great abandon, Bridget noticed with some alarm. Of course, the bible did say that Noah drank too much wine. But did he have to be quite so drunk?
Finally Noah retreated into his tent (a piece of drapery at the side of the stage). His son entered and retreated in horror, shouting. Noah seemed to be having a hard time remembering his son’s name so he could curse him – poor Canaan kept hissing his name while Noah stumbled about calling him Caner and Cabit and Calus.
It was a huge relief when God came forward and announced, “And the years of Noah were nine hundred and fifty years, and so he died.” To her horror, Bridget saw that Higgins had decided to interpret the last lines as well; he heavily collapsed on the floor. But the cast very properly ignored him as they took their bows.
Then there were shouts of “Marlowe!” and “Rector!” from the audience.
Bridget stayed where she was, tucked at the side of the stage and watched as David climbed onto the makeshift platform and thanked everyone for making the performance such a success. She watched him hungrily. This was the last time she would see him after all. And he was so beautiful, with his gentle eyes and broad, strong body, the voice of a scholar and the hands of a farmer. Never again would she love a man as much as she loved David Marlowe.
He walked from the stage and Bridget dared to peek at the audience. The gathered gentry looked both cheerful and expectant, gathering their wraps and preparing to have some of the Lord Sheffield’s excellent refreshments. The earl had sent his private chef to the rectory in the morning, and the man had spent the whole day preparing delicate and splendid confections.
She caught a glimpse of her brother, who sent her a congratulatory wave. Bridget smiled back, forgetting her misery for a moment. Lucien was so happy with his new wife. At the moment he was tenderly helping her from her seat, and Emily was looking up at him with glowing eyes. Bridget blinked hard. Undoubtedly, it was an even worse sin to envy one’s brother than to envy the odious Harriet Pettigrew.
Then she realized that not all of the audience, in fact, was happy. Miss Pettigrew was standing in the front row, and even from there Bridget could hear how shrill her voice was.
She frowned, trying to grasp the problem. Then she heard a deep voice at her shoulder. “It was the chicken, miss. That dratted chicken flew straight at Miss Pettigrew. I think it landed on her shoulder. I couldn’t see clearly because of my halo.”
Bridget gasped. “Oh no!”
“Hopefully she’s giving him the mitten,” Mr. Brisket said cheerfully. “My missus has said that we might think of going to another church if the rector marries that one. She’s a tartar, and only going to get worse as she ages.”
“Mr. Brisket!” Bridget protested. “You mustn’t say such things. Come along!” and she turned resolutely away.
“Just a minute, just a minute,” Mr. Brisket said. “Yep, that should do it!”
Despite herself Bridget looked back toward the audience.
David’s face had a red patch high on one cheekbone. “She struck him!”
“Not only that. She threw his ring on the floor,” the butcher said in a tone of deep satisfaction. “Well, I’d better join the others. The cast is having its own party, you know. That way we won’t put the gentry crowd to shame.”
“No, you are not!” Bridget said. “That is an absurd idea, and so I instructed the sexton. You will all be joining us.”
Mr. Brisket looked down at the slip of a girl next to him with a broad smile. “You’re a right one, you know that, miss?”
Bridget clutched his arm. “Mr. Brisket, do you think something could be done about Noah before he joins the party?”
“Absolutely,” he said promptly. And: “Hello, there, rector!”
Bridget swallowed and looked up.
“Evening,” David said absent-mindedly, his eyes on Bridget.
“Reckon you’ve got something to say to this young woman,” Mr. Brisket said in a tone of high pleasure. “I’ll just have a word with Jeremiah Higgins, sir. Reckon we’ll have to make a trip to the water pump and pour a pail of water over his head. I just don’t understand how he became that cast-away on one bottle of ale!”
“That would be most kind of you.” David extended his hand. “You made a splendid diety, Mr. Brisket. I was proud to see you in my rectory.”
Mr. Brisket went rosy all over his face. “That means a lot, sir. Means a lot, coming from you. Well, I’ll go and take care of Jeremiah now.”
And there they were, alone.
His cheek was still red, she noticed.
He rubbed the spot. “Harriet has a strong right arm.” He grinned. In fact, he couldn’t stop grinning like an idiot.
“I am very sorry,” Bridget began –
But she found herself in a kiss so tight, so fierce, and so brazen that her very breath was stolen from her chest. And she was jerked against a body so demanding that she could feel it through her flimsy gown.
“Bridget,” David said hoarsely. “I love you. I want…I want you. I want you here, with me. I want you to marry me, and put on irresponsible plays, and teach the orphans how to speak to animals.”
She opened her mouth to answer, but he pulled her close again and his mouth closed hungrily over hers, and she melted against him.
“Lust is a sin, Bridget, but this isn’t lust,” he said. “Not only lust.”
“I will marry you,” she said simply.
Being a man, he instantly reversed himself. “I shouldn’t ask you. I’m not worthy of you. Not at all.” And he dropped his arms.
Bridget nestled against him and smiled her a lopsided smile. “I’ve been a baker’s daughter,” she said.
“But in truth, you are the daughter of a marquis,” David replied. “No, I’m serious, Bridget. You can marry anyone you wish.“
“I turned down the Earl of Sallet,” she whispered, tracing his lips with her finger. “I rejected Baron Tibblesfoot last week.”
“Exactly,” David said, struggling to hang onto his common sense.
“There’s only one duke on the market next year,” she said thoughtfully. “Perhaps I should marry him.”
She wound her arms around him and put her head against his broad chest. “I want to marry you,” she said, her voice half muffled. “I want to marry David Marlowe and live in his vicarage.”
“I don’t have the income to support you properly.” His voice was strained.
“I do,” Bridget replied cheerfully. Then she tipped back her head and looked up into his agonized eyes. “You haven’t any choice, darling.”
David’s jaw tightened. “One always has a choice to do right or wrong.”
“Not this time.” His future wife laughed. “I believe that you’ve ruined my reputation. I’m compromised. I’m ruined. The duke will never marry me now.” She giggled again.
David gaped. And then slowly turned around. There, looking on with enormous interest, was a good portion of the London ton. It seemed that they had glimpsed something more interesting than the refreshments offered in the next room.
The very first eyes that met his were the amused – and quite unsurprised – eyes of Bridget’s brother as he climbed onto the stage.
Bridget tucked her arm under his. “May I present my brother? Lucien, this is Mr. David Marlowe, whom I am going to marry.”
David extended his hand as if he were in a dream. He opened his mouth, but was interrupted.
“What I don’t understand,” broke in a complaining, huffing voice, “is how did Higgins get hold of the vicar’s best brandy? When did he manage to take it from the vicar’s study? For that’s the situation, sir.” It was Mr. Brisket. “I’m afraid that I’ve had to send Higgins home. He simply is not fit for company. And he won’t be feeling any too chipper tomorrow either,” he added.
Then he realized that an elegantly dressed gentleman had joined the vicar and Miss Boch on the stage. “My apologies,” Mr. Brisket said, turning red as a beet. “Didn’t mean to interrupt, that’s for certain.”
“Please do not worry,” Bridget said. “Is there a problem?”
“Well, it’s the vicar’s best brandy, miss. Someone went and gave it to Mr. Higgins, and it was that brandy made him so bosky. Too fuddled to keep hold of the chicken, not to mention generally acting like a buffle-head during the play.”
He looked embarrassed. “I’m afraid, Mr. Marlowe, that there’s a bishop in the front hallway having a proper fit over the play. Talking about notifying authorities, and so forth.”
David smiled and tucked his arm around his betrothed – his new betrothed. “I’ll speak the bishop myself, Mr. Brisket. Thank you very much for your help. As for the brandy, we’ll think no more about it.”
There was an infectious chuckle beside him. David looked down, his heart bounding at the idea that he might walk through the rest of his life with beautiful, laughing Bridget at his side.
“Brandy, hmmm?” She was grinning at him. “Did that come from the vicar’s private stock, by any chance?”
“Silence is a cardinal virtue,” David announced severely. And he gave her one more hard, swift kiss, to the gathered delight and shock of the audience.