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A door clattered. “I see Hill. I need her to make my tea. I must go.” Mrs. Bennet trundled away.
Miss Mary and Pierce stared at one another. A breeze fluttered through the rose bushes, showering them with petals.
How improper! They should not be alone. There was only one reason for a private interview. Bradley’s offer remained contingent upon too many things. Still, Bradley knew her family, and the look in the vicar’s eye declared approval. His cheeks prickled as though scoured by rose thorns. Could he? Dare he?
“Miss Mary,” Pierce cleared his throat. “Can I convince you to take a turn with me about the garden? In your mother’s absence, perhaps you may assist me with my questions.” He offered his arm.
She slipped her hand into the crook of his elbow and peeked at him, cheeks flushed a deeper shade than the nearby roses. “I hope I have the answers you seek.”
He breathed in their fragrance. Pink roses were indeed his favorite.
“You wish to know more about the roses?”
“Ah, yes.” He pulled a spray of blossoms closer. “I must reveal my ignorance, but will you show where I might find the ‘hips’ of this plant?”
“Excuse me?” She cocked her head and glanced from Pierce to the roses and back.
“Rose hips, what are rose hips? Mr. Bradley’s apothecary in Derbyshire recommended he drink a tea brewed from them every morning. I want to provide him with a fresh supply but have not the slightest notion of what they are or where to find them.” He knit his brows, heart thundering so hard his hand shook. “Surely with so many roses here, there must be some you can show me.”
She chuckled. “I comprehend your confusion. You shall find no ‘hips’ on these plants for quite some time, for they are the fruit that follows the blossoms. There will be none until autumn.”
“Oh, I thought surely…” Pierce blushed and threw up his hands. “It does not matter.”
“You can ask Lady Lucas. I know she has a supply on hand as does the apothecary in town if you should prefer.” She sighed and turned away.
“What is wrong?” Cold gripped his face and pinched his breath. “You are unhappy. Is there some trouble with the Lucases?”
“No, my friends are quite well, thank you.”
He took a step closer to her. “What has affected you so?”
“It is true then.” She bit her lip.
“He will take you from us.”
“What do you mean?” He tried to catch her eyes, but she avoided him.
“Mr. Bradley has come to find his successor. You will follow him to Derbyshire,” her voice dropped to a low whisper, “and we shall never see you again.” She rubbed tears from her cheeks.
He took her elbow.
She stared up at him, eyes glittering, and pulled against his grasp. “No, no, there is no need. It is a good thing, and I am pleased for you.”
His fingers tightened around her arm, and he led them to a stone bench. The rough seat scraped his coat. Would it be uncomfortable for her? He glanced heavenward. Oh, for the right words!
She lighted on the stone, hands braced, as one prepared to flee.
“Mr. Bradley seeks a man to be his successor, one he will mentor, so he may leave this life in peace, knowing his parish will be well tended. His patron agreed to this plan and promised to appoint Bradley’s curate as vicar.”
She blinked rapidly. “What a rare opportunity.”
“He and I share similar views as to how a man should shepherd a flock. I would be a fool not to take the opportunity to learn from someone like him.”
“No offer has been made.”
Her breath hitched.
“However, I must be honest. I expect one to be forthcoming.”
She pressed her folded hands to her mouth. Eyes closed, she rocked slightly. “What a great honor. I am glad for you. I know how concerned he is for his parish. Mr. Bradley will be an excellent mentor and teacher.”
“He is. I have enjoyed his company these weeks.” He traced his fingertips along a small crack on the edge of the bench. Stupid, stupid man. Why could he not force himself to speak? Such significant things should not be said sitting down.
He rose, and helped her up. They walked toward a patch of pale yellow climbing roses that wound their way up an arch over the walkway.
“I am always amazed at the Good Lord’s ingenuity.” Pierce leaned into a blossom and breathed deeply. “Tucking so much sweetness into a tiny bloom—”
“Or healing properties into the hips a rose leaves behind?” She peeped at him through a curtain of petals, eyes shimmering in the filtered sun.
He laughed heartily. Several small birds launched in a flurry.
“Or such beauty in the eyes of a young woman.” He stepped closer.
He took her hand. “I know it was not long ago I asked permission to court you, Miss Mary…” Why would his tongue so stubbornly refuse to obey? He looked into the sky and rubbed his wooly tongue along the roof of his mouth. “How strange that I, who earn my keep through my weekly oratory, should now be at a loss for words.” He shrugged.
She swallowed hard and met his gaze. The corners of her lips turned up just enough.
He held his breath. Dear, dear girl, she understood. Air rushed into his lungs so fast his vision fuzzed.
“I hardly think you can compare the two situations. As you do not read from someone else’s sermons, do you not spend many hours studying and considering what you will say on Sunday mornings? You carry extensive notes with nearly every word you speak written before you.”
“You brought no notes with you now, no weighty journals, no tightly folded sheets.” She raised her eyebrow. “What surprise is it that you stumble over your words? How can you be expected to speak without adequate preparations?”
He shook his head, unable to contain a smile so broad she must question his lucidity. Was it wrong to feel such elation that another should understand him better than he did himself? “I am not an impulsive man. In the future, I may try to think ahead and arrange a few compliments that are generally acceptable to ladies so as not to be caught tongue-tied again.”
She giggled behind her hand.
He twined his fingers in hers and drew her hand to his lips. “You always seem to know what to say to set me at ease.”
She looked down.
“It is true.” He traced the side of her face with his fingertip. “And not just for me. How many times have you come with me to call upon the sick and known precisely how to ease the suffering of those around you? You are the embodiment of compassion and wisdom.” He tipped her chin and gently met her eyes. “I rely upon your judgment, and I do not wish to ever be without it.”
Her breath caught.
He licked his lips. “Please, Mary, dearest, sweet Mary, would you consent to become my wife?”
Tears streamed down her cheeks though she blinked furiously. “I would be most honored to be your wife…Ethan.”
His name on her lips caressed his ears and sent prickles down the back of his neck. He kissed her open palm. “You have made me the happiest of men.”
“And I the happiest of women.” She sniffled and pressed her lips into a teary smile.
He pulled out his handkerchief and dabbed the tears from her cheeks. “I hate to see you cry, but these tears I will cherish.” He folded the silk square and tucked it into his coat pocket.
“I do not understand.”
He memorized her expression of wonder and love. “Those tears answered my prayers. I was a terrible coward and could not bear the thought you did not return my feelings. This handkerchief I will keep always, as a reminder of answered prayers.”
Mary giggled, softly at first, then uncontrollably, and hid her face in her hands. She looked up, into his questioning eyes. “I must make you another, and I shall embroider it with…”
“No,” she winked, “rose hips.”