Authors: Lara Archer
Bared to the Viscount
Copyright 2015 Lara Archer
Published by Sagitta Press
Cover Design by Kim Killion
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This book is a work of fiction. The characters, events, and places portrayed in this book are products of the author’s imagination and are either fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
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Mary Wilkins was the very definition of plain.
Not hideous, by any means—she had no scars, no grotesque features or humps or oddities.
Her lips and eyelashes were pale, and her freckled cheeks resembled mud-flecked boots more than blooming roses. Her clothing was practical and modest, and the slim body beneath it lacked the mysterious curves all fashionable women seemed to have. Even her one fine feature—her thick, chestnut hair—did her no good, since a clergyman’s daughter had to coil it tight at her nape, turning it flat and drab brown, so her curls could never entangle a gentleman’s heart.
Thus, here she was, at the ripe old age of six and twenty, and still unmarried.
Without beauty, she had no lure. A rich dowry might have encouraged the local squires nonetheless, but she lacked that, too. The local farmers thought the excellent education provided by her clergyman father put her beyond their touch, so they tugged their forelocks when they passed her in the lane and called her “ma’am,” but never asked her to go walking after church.
She might have made a decent wife for a vicar—that role virtually required plainness—but the only unmarried clergyman of her acquaintance was her own brother, the Reverend Mr. Thomas Wilkins, who became rector of St. Michael’s when their father died. Granted, there were bachelor vicars at both Soffett and Aldham, but one seemed unaware that cleanliness was next to godliness and smelled like an unswept goat yard, while the other spoke with such obsessive zeal of “evading the devil’s treacherous lures,” she’d much rather live a spinster than live with him.
So she kept house for her brother in the vicarage where they’d both grown up, and would probably continue keeping house there whenever Thomas finally took his nose out of his theology books long enough to find himself a bride.
Papa had had a sister in much the same circumstances: Aunt Eleanor, who tended house so Mama could tend the children. In the evenings, Aunt Eleanor sat in her rocking chair, knitting or mending, accepting hugs from little girls and boys whenever little girls and boys could be troubled to offer them. Which could not possibly have been often enough.
No one asked if Eleanor was happy or unhappy. She just faded slowly over the years until one day she was found quite cold and still in her bed.
A shiver went down Mary’s back.
She busied her hands with folding the Lenten altar cloths she’d just laundered, preparing to tuck them safely away for next year. These would be the limits of her world—the vicarage, the schoolhouse where she taught local children a few days a week, and this back closet of the storage house behind the ancient church, where she kept the candles and vestments and tins of beeswax she used to polish all the pews. A place for purity and preservation. A fitting sort of place for a future maiden aunt.
A very decidedly
Oh, what would it be like to be beautiful, to kindle men’s desires, to be yearned for by all?
Or to be yearned for by just one man?
A man like…
A warm flush went through her limbs.
But it was a foolish thing to imagine. An utterly harebrained thought.
To be sure, when they were children—he wasn’t a viscount then, just
—they spent as much of their time as possible together, roaming the countryside, happily climbing apple trees and dropping toads down one another’s backs.
But Viscount Parkhurst inherited his title at just sixteen when his father died of a pneumonia. Soon after, he left for Cambridge, and then—against the advice of all older, wiser heads—for the continent to fight Napoleon. He was worldly now, accustomed to command. And accustomed to the glittering ladies of London. Certainly not likely to look on a drab little parson’s daughter with anything but a bemused remembrance that he’d once devoted so much time to her.
It was all very humbling.
Now that the viscount had returned to take up residence on his familial estate, the tenants and townspeople of Birchford chose her to bring him all their petitions: to dig a new well at the far edge of the village, to tear down a stone wall around an orchard that was commons in his grandfather’s day, to provide a parcel of land to build a county hospital she’d already spent years raising funds for, so local people might have more than one doctor within ten miles.
Had she been a pretty girl, one whose person could offer temptation to a peer of the realm, no one would have asked her to serve as emissary—they’d have thought the very idea obscene. But no one objected to sending her. Plainness, apparently, was ample armor for chastity.
To be sure, Lord Parkhurst had no difficulty resisting her meager charms. He treated her with the utmost respect, calling her “Miss Wilkins” now, never “Mary,” and talking soberly with her in his study or riding with her across his lands without the slightest hint of flirtation. Just as if she were a man.
And that was precisely the problem.
He might be oblivious to her gender, but she was far from oblivious to his.
Viscount Parkhurst, it turned out, had matured into a very, very handsome man. He’d always been a sweet-faced boy, with his family’s aristocratic good looks, but now he was something more approaching an Adonis.
The white-blond curls of his childhood had deepened into waves of manly bronze, and the boyish rosiness of his cheeks had been replaced by a soldier’s tan that made his sky-blue eyes stand out with dazzling clarity. His jaw had grown hard and firm, his nose appealingly Roman, and his cheekbones stark now that all trace of childish softness had been chiseled away.
And the changes below the neck were even more noticeable.
He’d grown remarkably tall since he was sixteen, and gained impressive inches in other places as well. His shoulders had broadened, and his chest seemed to strain the limits of his well-tailored jackets. In contrast to that breadth, his hips tapered in a tantalizing line that drew Mary’s eye every time he was on horseback, or climbed a hill a few paces ahead of her….or for that matter sat in his armchair behind his desk.
So even as she was trying to convince him to sponsor good public works, she discovered she was having what a proper clergyman’s daughter should probably condemn as Exceedingly Impure Thoughts about him.
A clergyman’s daughter—especially a plain one—should certainly not imagine pushing that well-tailored jacket off a viscount’s broad shoulders, or undoing his neckcloth (she understood the mysteries of them, having washed and ironed her father’s and then her brother’s for years and helped tie them neatly under Geneva bands for Sunday sermons). She certainly shouldn’t be eyeing the viscount’s long thighs in his buckskin trousers and thinking the fascinating ridges and grooves resembled the powerful muscles of a hunting horse.
It was utterly improper, and yet such images went through her mind half the day, and invaded her dreams at night.
Her pulse was pounding just thinking of it now, and her cheeks grew hot.
She gave her head a shake. Such thoughts were going to drive her mad, so she needed to shut them away—shut them up, just as she now shut the altar cloths in the cedar chest where they’d stay untouched and unsullied for another year.
The lid of the chest closed with a soft thud. She straightened her spine and was turning to leave the storage closet, when she heard a key click in the front door to the storage house, and then the door bang open.
She froze. No one should be in here this afternoon.
The door slammed closed again, and the latch clicked shut.
In a moment, whispers rose—one voice male, one female. Not the hushed, somber sort of whisper that was common enough on church grounds. No, this was mixed with muffled laughter.