For those of you who do not know what a traditional Regency romance novel is, just think Jane Austen and her descendants: Georgette Heyer, Carla Kelley, Candice Hern, and Mary Balogh all write novels set in the Regency era (1811-1820) featuring a comedy of manners, social commentary, and sweet romance. When new authors appear on the scene, I am always eager to check them out and see if they are up to snuff. I am happy to introduce debut novelist Charlotte Brentwood’s The Vagabond Vicar to you today with this preview and an exclusive excerpt.
William Brook is an idealistic young cleric, desperate to escape dreary England for a mission adventure in exotic lands. It’s his worst nightmare come true when he is posted to a parish in a small backwater village, populated with small-minded people and husband-hunting mamas. He’s determined not to form any ties and to escape the country as an independent single man.
A free spirit, Cecilia Grant is perfectly content to remain in her family home in Amberley village – when she’s not wandering the countryside at all hours painting. Marriage options are few, but that won’t stop her mother from engineering a match with one of the ruling family’s sons. Cecilia attempts to win the man, but what is it about the new vicar and his brooding ways that is so appealing? Could he be the only one who has ever really understood her, and can she discover what he is running away from?
As William struggles not to fall in love with the lady’s intoxicating beauty and mysterious eccentricity, he finds himself drawn into the lives of the villagers, despite their best efforts to alienate the newcomer. When he makes it clear he’s not sticking around, Cecilia strives to restrain her blossoming feelings for him. Just when it seems love may triumph, dark secrets are revealed in Amberley and a scandal from William’s past may see the end of not only his career, but his chance at finding an everlasting love.
“Good evening, ladies.” Mr Brook appeared behind their little group, and was immediately admitted to the circle by the girls.
Cecilia curtsied but did not echo their return greeting. She did not trust herself to look at him, let alone speak. She did not want to disappoint him by betraying her continued regard.
“Are you all enjoying the party?” William asked.
The Stockton girls began to speak all at once, and Cecilia began to back away, hoping no-one would notice if she slipped away to re-order her thoughts. She edged along the refreshment table away from everyone, pausing at the far corner and turning her back on the crowd. She attempted to still her spinning emotions, gripping the table top with both hands.
“I say, Miss Grant.”
Cecilia froze. She knew that voice. Her plan to escape had failed. Did he not realise how he was torturing her? How was she supposed to stop thinking about him when he was always there?
She jumped when something touched her arm, and she looked down to see William’s hand there. He removed it hastily. Still regarding her forearm, she barely managed to say, “Yes, Mr Brook?”
He cleared his throat. “I – I do hope our little… incident… will not hinder our friendship. I would still like to be… of service to you.”
Service? What did that mean? As much as she would dearly love to be his friend, she needed some distance in order to control her emotions. Still, he must have felt she was being uncivil, which was certainly not her intention.
“I am much obliged, Mr Brook. I apologise if I have been impolite.” She raised her eyes to meet his, willing herself not to flinch as his gaze set her heart to pounding.
Now William had her attention, he hardly knew what to say. His heart overflowed with all the things he longed to express, if only he would allow himself to love her.
His curiosity was brimming over – did Barrington behave as a gentleman during their game, and did she encourage him? Dressed as she was in a striking scarlet dress which seemed to accentuate the curves of her body to an unfair degree, he was certain she could have any man in the world if she only paid him some attention. He must speak.
“How are you liking the books I gave you?” Inwardly he cringed at such a trivial remark, however appropriate it may be.
She smiled, in such a way that her whole being seemed to radiate joy. “Very much, I thank you. I treasure them.”
“I am very pleased to hear it.” He was even more pleased that an action of his, however small, had made her so happy.
“I shall return them to you as soon as I can.”
Her manner was more formal again, although she seemed almost agitated as she appeared to study his waistcoat. Was she angry with him? In refusing her affections, had he made her heart turn bitter toward him?
“No,” he said, “please keep them as long as you like. Forever if that pleases you.”
“You are very good, sir.” She curtseyed quickly, and darted into the hallway.
Sir? His betraying feet took off after her. It was exactly what he had intended, was it not? For a measure of coolness between them, to ensure nothing improper could develop. He was safe now; she would not pursue his friendship any more than she would with any other fellow.
As he quickened his pace and leapt in front of her, he questioned his own sanity. Why was he so desperate to make things right between them… why did he feel an overwhelming sadness at the prospect of losing her friendship? It was only because he was lonely and she shared some of his interests, and he had an altruistic need to help her develop her talents, was it not? Surely it was nothing to do with the way her soft blond curls framed her face, her elegant long limbs, or the sweet mix of confusion and warmth in her expression.
“Is this not what you wanted, Mr Brook?” she whispered. “To prevent any possibility of attachment. I – I am doing my best to abide by your wishes.”
The earnest, haunted look in her eyes broke his heart. She was indeed acting on his instructions, and it was certainly for the best. But he could not endure the thought of being in Amberley with Cecilia so near, and to have her be a stranger. “It is my wish that we might learn to be friends,” he said carefully. “We cannot avoid each other entirely.”
She appeared to consider that, for a seemingly interminable length of time. “Well,” she said at last, “friends are honest with each other, are they not?”
He regarded her warily.
“Tell me, Mr Brook, what are you hiding? Is there something you are running from? Why are you so desperate to leave England… to leave Amberley?”
The questions shocked him like a blow to the gut, striking the familiar fear of vulnerability in his heart. His strange physical reaction was to laugh in an attempt to make her words absurd, but the sound was bizarre and choked. “Do not be ridiculous,” he sputtered. “What could I possibly be running from? I have – nothing.”
At his admission, he hung his head, defeated. Surely she would hear no more. But she did not leave him.
“If I may be so bold,” she said gently, “you do have an abundance of talents and kindness, and you could have all the delights this world has to offer… if you would let yourself.” She moved a little closer. “It is my opinion you need not go abroad to give of yourself fully.”
He studied her and shook his head. How did she manage to speak words right into his heart? How could he avoid telling her everything, or did he want to? He took a breath. “Miss Grant –”
“I apologise, Mr Brook.” She covered her face with her hand for a moment. “I have spoken out of turn. You must find me terribly inappropriate.” She stepped back again, and a blush crossed her cheeks. “I am sure you are used to ladies with more studied manners, who remain refined and only speak of the weather.”
He was not sure if he was relieved or disappointed to have the subject drop. “No indeed, Miss Grant,” he said, noticing how she looked even more beautiful when she was embarrassed. “It is refreshing to find a lady who has the courage to be herself.”
Cecilia laughed. “Call it not courage, Mr Brook. I assure you I do not act with any sort of intention. If my behaviour is out of the ordinary for gentlewomen, it is not due to any sort of studied rebellion.”
He offered her his arm. “And so it is all the more charming.”
As she took his elbow, a weight lifted from his shoulders. They began to walk back down the hallway, toward the sounds of dancing. “My mother despairs I will never find a man who will appreciate my foibles,” she said. “She is constantly telling me to keep quiet, to stay at home, and to train my thoughts on domestic matters.”
“Think of them not as foibles, Miss Grant,” he said, close to her ear. “I believe our unique quirks are to be celebrated, not exorcised.”
She turned to him just before they re-entered the salon, and the smile she gave him was one of shared appreciation and understanding.
He smiled back.
Charlotte lives in beautiful Auckland, New Zealand. When she’s not toiling at her day job, writing or procrastinating on the Internet, Charlotte can be found snuggling with her cat Sophie, warbling at the piano, sipping a hot chocolate or enjoying the great outdoors.
Cover image courtesy of Charlotte Brentwood © 2014; excerpt text Charlotte Brentwood © 2014, Austenprose.com