Wallflower Most Wanted
THE PICTURE OF ROMANCE
A dedicated painter, Miss Sophia Hastings is far more concerned with finding the right slant of light than in finding Mr. Right. But when an overheard conversation hints at danger for another local artist, Sophia is determined to get involved. Even if it means accepting help from an impossibly good-looking vicar who insists on joining her investigation―and threatens to capture her heart…
Reverend Lord Benedick Lisle knows that Sophia is no damsel in distress. But he won’t allow her to venture into peril alone, either...
especially since he finds Sophia’s curious, free-spirited nature so alluring. But protecting her from harm is becoming more difficult than the vicar could have expected as he and Sophia confront their fiery mutual passion. Who could have known that the art of love would prove so irresistible?
“Witty, sensual historical romance that will captivate readers.”
Consumed by the need to capture the scene in front of her before the light changed, Miss Sophia Hastings didn’t notice the newcomers until it was too late.
She’d struck out early that morning—an unusual occurrence for her—carrying her own equipment to her favorite spot at the edge of the Beauchamp House property, atop the chalk cliff overlooking the sea.
The desire to capture the morning light dancing over the waves had been building in her for days. It was always thus with her artistic motivations. Every painting she’d ever completed had begun as the kernel of an idea: a hint of color, a flicker of light, a touch of shadow. And slowly, over time—while she worked at other tasks—the idea would grow from thought to need. And she would give in to the impulse that made her try—however fruitlessly—to capture what she saw on canvas. Sometimes what she saw was a scene she’d crafted with models and costumes and props. But other times, like today, the scene was one that nature had provided for her. And that meant bringing her tools to the spot that nature herself dictated would give the best view.
Having removed her slippers so that she could feel the solid earth beneath her stockinged feet, she dashed her brush across the canvas, blending grays and blues and a hint of white in an energetic frenzy. Her arm arced in wide sweeps, mimicking the movement of the waves below and the wind that whipped around her. She’d been working for almost an hour, and was in that otherworld where her awareness of her own surroundings was dimmed by the vision before her, when several things happened at once.
A deep male voice sounded from somewhere in the trees behind her.
Footsteps crunched on the pebbled beach below.
And she lost her balance in the middle of a particularly energetic brush stroke, tumbling over the edge of the cliff.
The fall itself seemed to happen in an achingly slow unfurling of time, though in actuality it took only seconds for her to drop the ten or so feet from the precipice to the rocky beach. And somehow she managed to twist in such a way as to land on her feet and not her head.
Unfortunately, one of those feet landed on a rather sizeable stone that twisted her ankle.
She’d no sooner hit the ground than a large male form knelt beside her on the beach.
“My God. Are you hurt?”
Sophia blinked, and looked up into the alarmed face of Lord Benedick Lisle, vicar of Little Seaford. With a visage that was almost too fittingly angelic, his clear blue eyes and unruly brown curls had set every female heart in the vicinity into a flutter since his arrival some months earlier. And as an artist, with an eye for beautiful forms, Sophia couldn’t help but notice that the vicar was almost perfectly made. That he possessed an innate decency and sense of humor was perhaps gilding the lily.
Now, however, his usual good humor was replaced with real concern.
“Of course you’re hurt.” He didn’t seem to need a reply, which was good because she’d lost her breath from the fall. “No one can fall that far and remain unscathed.”
He waited a moment, just taking her hand in his, watching her with a mixture of concern and wonder. Shoving away her response to his gaze, she began assessing herself for damage. Her arms and upper body seemed fine. But her right ankle was throbbing and when she gave it an experimental flex, it made her cry out in pain.
“It’s my ankle,” she said through gritted teeth. It was mortifying to be in this situation. Not only because the vicar—who was undoubtedly the most handsome man in the county—was seeing her in such a vulnerable state, but also because he’d likely think this was some sort of ruse to get him to notice her. Not that he was vain—quite the opposite—but the unmarried young ladies of Little Seaford had all but turned vicar hunting into a sport. Why should he think she’d be any different?
But Lord Benedick didn’t seem to be overly concerned about his hide, for he gave a grim nod. “I’m just going to feel for broken bones, Miss Hastings,” he assured her solemnly. “Let me know if something pains you.”
Moving back so that he could get to her foot—which was bare but for her stockings—he very carefully slipped his large hand beneath her heel and lifted it. Sophia bit her lip to keep from voicing her pain at the movement, and when he probed the joint with steady fingers she nearly levitated.
For a moment, all she felt was white hot pain.
“Easy,” he soothed, lowering the offending extremity gently to the ground. “There’s no sign of a break. At least not that I could
feel. I think you’d better get Dr.—”
He broke off at the sharp bark of a shout from the clifftop above them.
Sophia’s eyes flew to his as she recalled the man’s voice she’d heard right before she fell.
She opened her mouth to tell him when Benedick raised a finger to his lips. Realizing that it might be best if they weren’t discovered, she nodded.
“Damn you,” the man cried. “I knew I should have seen to this business myself. You’re far too soft to deal with our problem.
Can you be relied upon to eliminate our little stumbling block if necessary?”
The other man’s voice was too low for them to hear, but it seemed to be placating, because the first man’s next words were calmer. Something about their location allowed his utterance to float down to the beach below with amazing clarity. “See that you do,” he said in the tone of a man who has little patience with excuses. “If this scheme doesn’t work out, I will hold you responsible. And I am not kind to those who disappoint me. You’ve been loyal enough so far. I hope you won’t allow yourself to be weakened by your loyalty to people who don’t care about you. I am the one who truly understands you. Only I can help you rise above your circumstances and achieve the success you deserve.”
There was something familiar about the man’s voice. But Sophia was still too shaken from her fall to concentrate on it.
Once again, they heard the low mumbling of the second man. Then, the sound of footsteps shushing over the dead leaves of the little wooded copse indicated that the two men were leaving.
Sophia and Lord Benedick were silent for a few minutes more, just to be sure the men were gone. The sound of the sea, battering into the shore again and again, punctuated their breathing while they waited. The sun, which had been wan when Sophia first came out that morning, had gone behind a cloud, and Sophia shivered a little.
“Who was that?” she asked glancing up at the cliff, almost afraid the two men would climb over. “Even only hearing one side of their conversation I know it was not about their plans for the village fete.”
“I’m not sure,” Lord Benedick said, following her gaze upward. “Perhaps it’s best if we forget we heard that. It was clearly not intended for public consumption. And the louder man did not sound like the sort of person who would take kindly to having interference in his business.”
Sophia turned to him in surprise. “I should have expected that attitude from other men, Lord Benedick, but I should think as a man of God your first responsibility is to help people. And clearly someone is in grave danger. We just heard one man tell another that he must be prepared to eliminate someone.”
“I am aware of what we heard, Miss Hastings,” he said stiffly, “but you are in no condition to look into the matter. We must see to getting you back to Beauchamp House. Whatever we overheard can wait for that at least, can it not?”
As if the conversation were over, he rose easily to his booted feet and put his fists on his hips. He rather looked like an avenging angel, now, Sophia thought sourly. An avenging angel who was urging caution.
She knew very well when she was being fobbed off. Still, she was determined. Her own sense of justice insisted. “Very well, Lord Benedick. It can wait. But do not think to dissuade me from learning more about those men. If someone is truly in danger we must do something to protect them.”
At her vehemence, something in his gaze softened. “Very well, Miss Hastings. I will commit to learning more. But for now we must get you to the house.”
She nodded, and was about to ask him for a hand up when he bent and gathered her into his arms,lifting her as if she weighed no more than a feather.
The jolt to her injured ankle, however, soon replaced any shyness at being lifted bodily from the ground. Her head swam a little as the chalk cliffs spun by her as she was propelled upward. Closing her eyes against the disorientation, she concentrated on getting past the painful moment. When it had abated some, she took a deep breath and became aware of the warmth of the hard male chest against her side, as well as the bergamot mixed with pure male scent of him.
“I’m sorry,” he said, and she realized she must have made a noise at the pain. “I’ll do my best not to jostle you as we go up the sea stairs, but it will be impossible to avoid some bumping. It is the nature of stairs, I’m afraid.”
She looked up into his eyes, which were once more creased with concern. She needed to be careful or she’d find herself enjoying this sort of tender care a bit too much. “Thank you, my lord,” she said with a firmness that was as much for her as it was for him. “I will try to keep my cries of pain to a minimum.”
Sophia was only half-joking.
“Good girl,” he said with a nod. “Let’s get you home.”
Lord Benedick Lisle, vicar of Little Seaford, had been on his morning walk along the seashore when Miss Hastings had quite literally fallen from the heavens. Or at the very least from the clifftop.
One minute he’d been studying the crumbling stone sea wall that marked the boundary of the Beauchamp House property, and the next a female body was hurtling down from above.
He’d been too far away to do anything but watch in shock as he tried to make sense of what he was seeing. Then, he broke into a run. When he reached her side, he realized it was Miss Sophia Hastings, one of the four Beauchamp House heiresses.
She was an exceptionally lovely young woman—he might be a vicar, but he was still a man, and he doubted the Archbishop of Canterbury himself would be able to resist the pull of Miss Hastings’ ample charms—but it was her spirit that made her truly beautiful. Whereas other young women with her looks might have gone to London and taken the ton by storm, or searched for a wealthy husband, Sophia was a painter of some skill and she was determined to make her mark. Which meant she spent a great deal of time in her studio, or painting outdoors. And when she wasn’t working, she was surrounded by a cadre of young men from the village. She hadn’t, so far as Ben could see, given any of them an indication that she was interested in more than flirtation, but she somehow managed to handle them without allowing them to get too competitive over her.
Ben had considered entering the fray himself, but with his own duties in the parish he hardly had the time for friendship, much less anything more serious. And, if he were being honest, as a vicar, he needed a certain sort of wife. He had watched his brothers Archer and Freddie fall in love and marry, and he certainly wanted the sort of partnerships they enjoyed with their wives. But he also had to be pragmatic when it came to choosing a bride. A vicar’s wife would need to be content with sharing him with the parish. A vicar was never off duty. If someone were ill, or suffering, he had to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice. And his wife would need to be someone who shared his dedication to caring for the people of his parish. Who wouldn’t worry about getting her gown a bit dirty when she visited the homes of people who worked the land. Who could converse with all sorts of people, be they noble or commoner. He wasn’t sure that Miss Hastings possessed those qualities.
Of course, that was putting the cart before the horse. But he was a sensible man, and he was perhaps a bit too prone to overthink things. And if truth be told, he was unlikely to find Miss Hastings in a quiet moment to assess whether they could even be friends. She was always chatting with someone or working on one of her paintings.
If he’d wished for a few minutes of uninterrupted conversation with the lady, however, he hadn’t wished for it to be while she was in excruciating pain.
He tried to be as gentle as possible while he climbed the sea stairs, but it was impossible to be as smooth as a well-sprung carriage, and by the time they reached the gardens behind Beauchamp House, he was panting from exertion and Miss Hastings’ face was white with pain.
As they neared the fountain, he heard a shout from the house and Lady Serena Fanning, who served as chaperone to the heiresses, came hurrying out followed by the Duchess of Maitland— Lady Serena’s sister-in-law and one of the four heiresses.
“What’s happened?” Lady Serena asked as she reached them. Her strawberry blond hair was coiled tightly around her head in a rather severe style, but Ben knew she was fond of her charges. “Sophia, my dear, are you hurt?”
“I hurt my ankle,” Sophia said through clenched teeth.
“But how?” Daphne, Duchess of Maitland, asked, her brow furrowed. “I thought you were painting this morning.”
“Perhaps we can discuss this inside?” Ben asked. Sophia wasn’t heavy per se, but he wasn’t exactly Gentleman Jackson either and he didn’t want to drop her.
“Come,” Serena said and he followed her through the gardens toward the terrace where two French doors opened into a drawing room.
It was a comfortably appointed room with warm rose walls and a pair of overstuffed sofas before a low fire.
“Here is fine,” Sophia said indicating one of the sofas. Ben lowered her as carefully as he could onto the cushion and inhaled the lemon scent of her hair just before he pulled away from her.
Stepping back, he found himself clasping his hands behind his back to stop the impulse to reach for her again.
“Perhaps you can ask Greaves to send for the doctor, Daphne dear,” said Serena, who was obviously in caretaking mode, putting a pillow behind Sophia’s back, and bringing her a light blanket.
“Stop fussing, Serena,” the patient protested. “I’m perfectly fine.”
“You are not fine,” her chaperone corrected her. “But I will leave you be for a moment. I’ll see if someone can find your sister. There’s no telling where she’s got to looking for her rocks.”
Without waiting for a reply, Serena turned to Ben. “If you’ll wait here a moment, I’ll go get some ice for Sophia’s ankle and ask cook to send some refreshments.”
And then she was gone.
The urgency of the need to get Sophia up to the house had erased any awkwardness between them during the long walk, but now there was a tension between them. Not liking to loom over her, Ben lowered his tall frame onto the sofa across from her.
“You’re in good hands, I think,” he said, breaking the silence. “Lady Serena seems quite competent.”
Sophia ignored his small talk and got right to the heart of the matter. “Thank you for rescuing me, my lord. I don’t know what I’d have done if you hadn’t happened along.” Her blue eyes were bright with sincerity. “Not to mention what would have happened if those men on the bluff had discovered me.”
At the reminder of the conversation they’d overheard, Ben’s gut tightened. He didn’t like to imagine that scenario. “I want you to promise me that you’ll concentrate on healing and not try to investigate the matter on your own. I’ll handle it.”
She tilted her head. “You’ll investigate it? I thought you said it was best to leave it alone?”
“As you said, someone is in danger.” He wasn’t sure what exactly he would do, but he knew he had to keep her away from the matter. There had been menace in the man’s voice. And he sounded like the sort who would not take kindly to prying eyes in his business. “I’ll ask a few questions.”
Her pretty lips pursed in frustration. “It’s not fair that I’m injured. I would like to know what they’re up to.”
He was entirely unsurprised that she was already chafing at the constraints of her injury. And it had only just happened. For her sake he hoped it would heal quickly.
“What if I promise to tell you what I learn?” he offered her. He didn’t add that this way she could remain out of the matter, which would ensure her safety. He had a sneaking suspicion that she wouldn’t give a fig for her own safety if it meant protecting someone else’s.
Like a queen accepting a favor from a serf, she gave a regal nod. “I suppose that will have to do,” she said with a moue of distaste. “Though I do wish I could go with you. Who do you intend to question first?”
He was saved from response by the arrival of the butler Greaves carrying a laden tea tray. “Miss Hastings,” he older man said gravely, “May I say how unhappy I am to hear of your injury?” He gave a deep bow.
“Thank you, Mr. Greaves,” Sophia said with a sweet smile for the butler. “It is an annoyance, but these things happen in the pursuit of one’s craft.”
Ben rather thought most artists avoided tumbling over seaside cliffs, but kept his own counsel on the matter.
He watched in amusement as the butler, who clearly had a soft spot for Sophia, handed her a cup of tea and a plate of biscuits.
“Lady Serena told me to serve you, Miss. She is fetching your sister from upstairs.”
“Thank you, Greaves,” Sophia said, sipping her tea. “You may go. Lord Benedick will keep me company while we wait for Gemma and Serena.”
Ben wasn’t positive, but he thought he saw a flicker of disappointment cross the man’s face before he gave a brisk bow and left the room, closing the door behind him.
“He’s a sweet man,” Sophia said, “but overly solicitous at times.”
“He certainly holds you in some affection,” Ben remarked. He might as well have been invisible for all that the butler noticed him.
Sophia gave a slight shrug, but didn’t comment on the matter. Instead she changed the subject. “I wonder if you might do me a favor, my lord.”
He nodded. “Of course. Whatever I can do to make you comfortable.”
“It’s just that my canvas and easel and paints are all still on the bluff,” she said sheepishly.
Of course. She hadn’t exactly carried them down to the beach as she fell.
Ben stood. “I’ll go retrieve them for you.” She obviously cared about her materials and wanted them to be in good hands.
“I could ask a footman,” she added in a low voice, “but I thought maybe you could look in the little wooded area and see if our arguing men left any traces of themselves behind.”
Ah. Not a bad idea, actually. “I’ll be off then. I’ve got about an hour until I’m to meet with the altar guild.”
“Oh.” She looked a little guilty. “I don’t wish to take you away from your work. I’ll send a footman.”
But Ben was already eager to get to the copse to look around for himself. “I have the time, Miss Hastings,” he said, crouching beside the sofa where she reclined with her ankle elevated. He took her hand and squeezed it. “I will bring your things back, though I may not have time to come in and report to you. But I’ll send a note round if I find anything.”
Her dark lashes lowered as she looked down at their joined hands. When she looked up and met his gaze, her smile was one of relief. “Thank you for keeping me apprised. I know you’d rather I stay out of this business, but I can’t help but feel responsible for whomever it was they were discussing.”
“You can only do what’s in your power,” he said, trying to reassure her. “But I share your concern. They were rather rough customers.”
Stroking his thumb over the back of her hand, he reluctantly let her go and stood.
“Wish me luck,” he said with a crooked smile.
“Just don’t tumble over the edge,” she said wryly. “I won’t be there to rescue you.”