Her favorite mare, Jenny, skidded to a stop as Rachel reigned her in sharply. She pranced a couple of steps, sides heaving, as Rachel pondered what direction to take. Her latest rides over the moors had been refreshing, the feeling of wind in her face stinging until the tears began to ebb out the corners of her eyes. Once that happened, she would feel a rent in her heart, and real tears would flood out.
Rachel didn't know what to do. She felt estranged from John, more than she'd ever felt in her life. Even when he spent five years away at college, coming home only on holidays, his visits had found their friendship easily renewed. They'd always talked openly.
But this horrid pretend engagement was breaking her apart. She laid in bed at night, recalling that kiss he'd shared with her, then willing herself to forget it. Still, her heart would pound and a space deep inside her would ache to be filled again with that heady rush of desire she'd given into only once. That kiss had been a opiate for all her ills, but now the illness was much more severe, and the medicine out of reach.
In her weakest moments, Rachel imagined that John would come to her and privately declare that he was deluding himself to think their attraction wasn't real. She was the one he'd loved all his life. She would be his ideal wife and they'd announce their mutual joy to the world.
Then she shored up her resolve and once more cast a stone into that mirage-like reflection. John had made it clear that he had other plans, a secret wish, but no one knew what it was.
Rachel had incidentally gained some knowledge that made her worry even more. Their coachman, Vern, had a brother, Thomas, who worked as a groom for the Ellsworth family. Thomas had mentioned once during a visit that he was less busy than usual. Lord John's horses were gone out nearly every day. If he didn't take his gig, he'd take his hunting mount, Apollo. He was gone for hours at a time, always riding off in the direction of the Vicarage.
"We've begun to joke that he's either becoming a very religious man, praying in the church, or he's an irreligious man, preying on the Vicar's daughter."
Rachel had only overheard that last quip because she'd quietly come in the stable to find a better fitting bit for her mare. The men quit talking once they realized she was near. Her face probably showed her rising ire, but Thomas didn't know she wasn't angry with him. She was angry once more at John's duplicity.
Rachel's mare pawed at the ground. She absently stroked her neck, murmuring some silly words until the mare settled again. Looking to her left, Rachel could see the moors, rolling away to the sea. Looking to the right, she saw the inland edge, where the hills finally lay smoother and regular farm fields made patchwork green and gold patterns on the earth. Straight ahead the track would eventually meet up with the moor road they had taken to Rievaulx Abbey.
The thought of her day at the Abbey made Rachel more sour. She clucked to her mare and turned about, taking a slow walk down the hill and back toward the vicarage. She felt her mind begin to calm as home came into view. She pondered the layout of their pleasant home, the gardens, the greenhouse and carriage house, the stable, barn, and sheds. Several paddocks were fenced up to the stream, and pasture stretched beyond there. Then the stone wall demarcating the beginning of Burley Park cut through the green. The fields were almost identical on either side of the wall—but one was a noble's land, and one was a parish glebe.
She tried not to feel the bitterness that commonly rankled in her throat when she looked at Burley Park. Its pale brick glowed warmly in the sun, the light glinting off the many windows that faced southwest. The stream ran past Burley, then bent its way to the River Leven. Most of the land between here and there belonged to the Ellsworths, even the moor farms and the grist mill. John was becoming an able manager of the many holdings the Earl had inherited, and which he would one day inherit as well. She'd once thought she might have to learn to be a mistress to Burley, much like Amanda was looking forward to. Rachel didn't want such responsibility. Maybe that was part of John's hesitation.
Her reverie was broken by the sight of a man tearing down the lane, perhaps two miles away from Burley, tossing up clouds of dust as he careened along. He came from the south, along the main road, then swerved into the lane leading to the east. Rachel sat up taller, fully alert. If he didn't turn in at Burley, that meant he was coming to the vicarage. She urged Jenny into a trot, still watching the man's progress. He didn't show any sign of slowing at the turn for Burley. Rachel then leaned forward, kicked her heels into Jenny's sides, and galloped back home. Her vantage point was soon lost as the path descended into a dell and wound between low hills. She came around the last curve as fast as she dared, reining Jenny toward the vicarage. She took a direct course, leaping a low fence and barely holding her seat, then kept on at full speed.
Rachel leaned low over Jenny's neck as they wove around trees and bushes, leapt over the stream, and at last pulled into the lane that ran up to the vicarage barn. Several men heard the clatter of her approach and stepped up in alarm, only to turn with even more surprise as the express rider came raucously down the lane. Rachel threw the reins to the nearest lad and went running to the front of the house. Her father had appeared from somewhere in the barn and ran down the drive as well.
"Vicar Pearce!" the man called hoarsely, then leaned over and coughed.
"Here! I'm here, man, what is it?"
"Express, sir." He coughed again, breathless, but handed the sealed letter to the vicar.
"I'll hold your horse, sir," Rachel offered. "We'll provide a drink in the house, and Susan will get your fee." The man nodded and slid off his horse, walking unsteadily toward the back of the house. She turned her eyes to her father, who was tearing off the seal and unfolding the letter.
Her father's face turned ashen the moment he read the first line. He put his hands over his eyes, then read the line again. His hands trembled and he dropped his arms as if the letter was made of lead.
Rachel drew closer, leading the tired horse forward. "Father, is it... Maman? Or Amanda?" They had been due to return that day, nearly that hour, but had not yet come.
He shook his head but did not speak. A groom came up then and took the rider's horse from Rachel, looking worriedly at them but not daring to ask.
"Father, can you tell me what it is?"
He walked a few steps away to a white painted bench, set in front of the parlor window. He sat down heavily. After a long, shuddering breath, he looked up at Rachel.
"It's... it's Sir Dabney. His carriage overturned. He's been killed."
Rachel felt a freezing enter her chest in spite of the hot afternoon. She stumbled and sat down next to her father. She shook her head in disbelief, and he automatically handed her the letter.
It was only three sentences, sent from Sir Dabney's valet who'd followed in a coach behind Dabney's new team and phaeton. "Came upon a wreck, moments too late. Dabney perished when thrown from the gig. One horse injured and shot." The express was directed from Selby, a town only a day's ride from Dabney's home near Scunthorpe.
The express rider came out of the house, regretfully saying he had another express for Burley Park as well. "Let your horse rest, and take one of ours," Rachel said quietly. The groom nodded to the man and had him follow him back to the stables.
Rachel felt strangely hollow, as if her mind had somehow disconnected all feeling from her body. She only stared at the letter, not really reading it, for another five minutes. Her father began to shudder with silent sobs.
Then the crunch of gravel announced a vehicle, and they looked up to see Vern atop their family coach, waving as he drew up the drive. The coach rolled to a stop in front of the bench where Vicar Pearce sat, drying his eyes. He stood with a solemn expression, watching as Marielle and Amanda descended the step with a gay hello. Rachel immediately stood and put her arm around Amanda, drawing her closer to their father.
"Hush, sister, listen," she chided when Amanda began her joyful report of their trip.
Amanda paused, looked at her father, and began to grow pale. "Mr. Dabney is—" Before her father even formed a full sentence, she fell crying into her sister's arms.
YOU ARE READING
The Vicar's DaughtersHistorical Fiction
If every young lady likes to be crossed in love now and then, the Vicar Pearce's daughters are three times blessed. Willful and spirited, Rachel refuses to think Lord Ellsworth's son, her dearest friend since childhood, is not in love with her. But...