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A HEART DECEIVED
By MICHELLE GRIEP
David C. CookCopyright © 2013 Michelle Griep
All rights reserved.
Bedfordshire, England, 1795
Sunlight slanted a direct route from heaven through the sanctuary windows. Were the dust motes riding that beam sturdy enough to carry her weight, Miri Brayden would mount up and fly out of there in a heartbeat.
In the pulpit, her brother droned on—and on. And on. Probably something about brimstone or eternal wrath. Who knew? Her mind floated from speck to speck as she zigzagged her eyes up to the glass panes. Beyond, a few small clouds roamed free. What would it feel like to drift away on one of those? A lot softer than the wicked pew that numbed her backside, to be sure.
Half a rebellious smile twitched her lips, then disappeared. If God singled her out for her lack of attentiveness and incinerated her on the spot, she shouldn't be a bit surprised. Not that she didn't deserve it.
But that would be too easy an out.
She forced her gaze back to Roland, who aimed his finger like a weapon of God, firing musket balls of scripture into the congregation. Stifling a yawn, she blew out a long breath instead. Several other sighs chorused around her. From behind, a suspicious snort-snort might have been a snore, but she resisted the urge to turn and confirm it. If Roland didn't end Sunday morning prayers soon, the whole of Deverell Downs Church would meet with a fireball of judgment for dozing off.
Or maybe Roland was their judgment.
For the third time in the past eternity, she tilted her chin sideways and stole a glance two aisles over at Mr. Mystery, as she'd dubbed him. The man sat alone, in the seat usually inhabited by Mr. and Mrs. Harper. He was likely tall, for his broad shoulders and head cleared the top of the box pew. His hair was the color of winter wheat, pulled back and fastened in a queue. Straight nose, neither too long nor too short, a clean-shaven face with a square jaw ... she might just change his name to Mr. Handsome instead.
Roland's voice caught her in the act, and her face burned all the more when the mystery man stood and turned his head, meeting her gaze straight on. The deep blue of his eyes asked questions she wasn't sure she could answer.
Then he cocked his head and winked.
Miri snapped her attention to her feet as she rose, stomach twisting. Had Roland noticed the exchange from his high perch? Daring a peek, she moved her lips along with the final hymn, though no sound came out. Her brother lifted his face to the ceiling, arms poised for benediction. Miri's muscles loosened, all the way down to her clenched toes. God had been gracious indeed.
At the final amen, pew doors flew open, and bodies rushed into the aisles. Shouldn't people be running to God instead of away from Him? Miri bit back a smirk. It wasn't God they ran from, but rather her brother. She'd run too, if he weren't currently her sole means of support.
Though Roland would label her as brazen, she draped her pelisse over her arm and shouldered into the press. The thought of the outdoors was far too tempting to take the time to don and button the cloak. Merely thinking of trading the stuffy sanctuary air for the brisk spring breeze hastened her steps.
Nearing the vestibule, however, she stopped. Those behind her flowed past like water around a streambed rock. Ahead, standing on tiptoe, Clive Witherskim looked over the shoulders of taller men, no doubt hoping to spy her. Fresh air lost all appeal at the thought of sharing it with him.
She spun and bumped flat against the squire, Mr. Gullaby.
"Oh! Forgive me." Stepping aside, she backed against a pew, allowing plenty of room for the squat man to pass.
Instead, he tugged on a long gold chain, swagged from a vest pocket inside his waistcoat, and retrieved a filigree watch. Flipping it open, he made an exaggerated point of studying the thing, then lifted his dark little eyes. "It is commendable that during your brother's retirement he has graciously chosen to fill the pulpit for Mr. Eldon. However, I am wondering, Miss Brayden, if perhaps you know when the vicar will return?"
Miri angled her face, keeping track of Witherskim with one eye. "I am sorry, sir. I have no idea when Mr. Eldon will return, though I will pass along your commendations to my brother."
"Humph. Then you can pass this along as well." He held up the watch and snapped the lid shut inches from her nose, making her flinch. "Mr. Eldon always kept Sunday morning prayers to fifty-five minutes. Fifty-five, Miss Brayden, not two hours. Your brother would do well to remember that if he ever serves again."
She nodded, for her own aching backside could not argue with the man. "Of course."
"Good day, then ... what's left of it." The squire dismissed her with a flick of his wrist and disappeared into the crowd of remaining parish members flocking around the entryway.
Witherskim no longer stood amongst them. Had he finally tired of the waiting game?
Pausing, she tucked a stray curl behind her ear. If she took her time, Witherskim might give up and leave the grounds altogether. The afternoon could yet be salvaged with a few of the cook's biscuits and a hot cup of chamomile.
"For God's sake, Miriall, why are you still here? You dawdle as a common slackard. Come along." From behind, fingers bit into the fleshy part of her upper arm, heeling her into step with her brother's long stride.
She opened her mouth to protest, but Roland cast her a dark look, a clear warning that he'd brook no quarrel. Upsetting him in public, especially in full view of Miss Prinn and Mrs. Tattler, who stood gaping from the doorway, would be madness—exactly what she'd been trying to avoid the past month. Pressing her lips tight, Miri swallowed her dissent and quickened her pace.
"Ladies, excuse us." Roland nodded at the women as he swept Miri beyond the sanctuary's threshold and into the bright spring morning. Ahead, on the road leading to town, the flanks of a black mare disappeared around a bend.
Roland pulled her up short. "You see what your dallying has done? Master Witherskim has ridden off already. You missed a prime opportunity, Miriall."
"Thank God," she said, then wished she could pull back the words and cram them deep into her reticule, so fierce was Roland's scowl. "What I mean to say is, thank God that I have you to look out for my welfare, brother."
"Yes, you should. Daily." He rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, then slowly lowered his arm to his side. "I suppose I shall have to step up my intervention. Master Witherskim is your best, and I daresay only, prospect."
"But Roland, if we could simply find Will. Maybe he would—"
From the corner of her eye, Miri caught a flash of a grey shawl and dotted yellow skirt edging closer. If Miss Prinn and Mrs. Tattler soaked up any of this conversation, they'd wring out every drop and wash the entire town from one end to the other. Miri lifted her lips into her brightest smile and raised her face to Roland's. "As you wish."
"All right, then." He tugged on his shirt cuffs, straightening his sleeves, and eyed the remaining congregation. Most had fled, but a few grouped in conversation next to the greystone walls of the church. None paid him any mind, probably fearing he'd let loose another sermon.
"See to it that you are not late for luncheon." He turned and crunched down the gravel pathway toward the rectory.
Tattler and Prinn immediately swooped in, the scent of lemon verbena and ripening curiosities filling the vacuum left by Roland's departure. "Oh, Miss Brayden! Such a lovely day, is it not?"
Miri curtsied to the ladies, then hurried after her brother, calling over her shoulder, "My apologies, ladies. I am needed at the rectory."
Better to have lunch with a madman than suffer dissection by the town gossips.
* * *
Ethan Goodwin leaned against the stone blocks of St. Mary Woolnoth Church, tired of debt and thievery. Weary of breathing, actually. The feeling had been with him for some time now, like a tooth gone bad—one that needed pulling. Life just didn't glitter anymore. He blew out a snort. As if it ever had.
Carriages rolled by. Horses and wagons and people darted one way and another down the London street. Near the corner, a young miss, with a pert little nose and hair all in ringlets, clutched a book in one hand. A stringed pouch dangled from the other. Easy pickings—but much too dangerous. A red-coated dragoon stepped beside the girl, tucking her hand into the crook of his arm.
The last of the great tower bells rang, pulling Ethan's gaze to the opening church doors. Parishioners poured out like spilled holy water. His eyes moved from one prospect to another, but something was wrong. Very wrong. No thrill raced through his veins with the coming conquest. His heart didn't even accelerate. A sooty feeling, black and heavy, tamped out any embers of anticipation.
Even so, he glanced from a fat madam to her fatter reticule. Sequined. Satin. And no doubt lined with silver coins. Humming an old bawdy song, a favorite of his friend Will's, he clasped his hands behind his back, then stepped into the departing congregants. Raising his face to the sky, he studied what might have been blue beyond the smoky haze, and bumped square into the woman's shoulder.
She gasped. "Good heavens!"
"Watch your step, man!" The fellow next to her lifted a single glass lens to his eye. If murder were possible by the sharpness of a squint, Ethan's lifeblood would be pooling in the gutter.
"Dreadfully sorry." Ethan shrugged, holding out both hands. "Afraid my mind was occupied, which is more than shameful, being that I've upset you both. Please forgive me."
The woman sniffed.
The man curled his lip. "Shove off."
"Again, my apologies." Ethan bowed, touching his fingertips to his forehead in a salute.
Then snatched her bag as they hurried past him.
Judging by the weight of the spangled pouch, the thing held a ransom's worth of coin. Practicality shouted at him to pocket the booty and run, fast and far.
So why did the world blur to a stop?
His feet froze. The sound of his own breathing echoed in his head. He gaped at the treasure nestled in his hands, and the longer he stared, the stronger a foreign urge welled. Burning. Incessant. Slightly nauseating and—
"Excuse me!" He broke into a dead run. "Madam!"
He didn't stop until he tapped her on the shoulder.
"Didn't I tell you to shove off?" The fellow turned, puffing out his chest. "I've a mind to call a constable—"
Ethan held out the reticule. "I believe this belongs to the lady."
The woman's eyes widened, her lips forming a large O. She seized the pouch and clutched it to her chest. "Oh my! I didn't realize I'd dropped my bag. Thank you, sir. Thank you so very ..."
Her voice faded into the street clamor as Ethan wheeled about and stalked off, angry at her gratitude. Angry at himself. That sweet bit of fortune would've paid off his debts. What was he thinking?
As he stormed by the church, an old gentleman, thin as the cane he white-knuckled, descended the final step. From the tip of his silk cravat tucked into a sateen-breasted waistcoat, down to his glossy leather shoes, the man smelled of money.
Ethan slowed his steps. Could he pull off the act without another appearance from his long-lost conscience? Did he even want to? He flexed his fingers, trying hard to conjure up some kind of zest for the task, and ... nothing. Not one thing in him longed for the rush of a fruitful theft.
"You there!" A bulwark of a man, draped in a black cassock, stood at the church's threshold, pointing a finger at him.
Ethan lifted one brow while slipping a glance to the left and right.
"Aye, I said you. Come here."
Frowning, Ethan hesitated. Oh, it would make a right fine tale to laugh about with Will should he answer the reverend's call, but he'd learned long ago that churches and jails were best avoided. He opened his mouth to cut the fellow off, then pressed his lips shut.
Slowly, almost imperceptibly, the reverend's finger had nudged upward, aiming just beyond Ethan's shoulder.
Glancing backward, Ethan followed the trajectory with his eyes. Seven—maybe eight—paces away, a constable folded his arms and widened his stance, gaze fixed on Ethan.
Bypassing the old fellow with the cane, Ethan took the stairs two at a time. "Ahh, yes, Reverend. So glad you asked me here today." He embraced the man, clapping him on the back. That ought to give the constable something to think about.
"In truth, lad, I think you have God to thank for this appointment." The reverend whopped him hard between the shoulder blades in return.
Coughing, Ethan didn't protest as the man led him inside. He couldn't. He could barely breathe. He followed the clergyman to the back pew, where the fellow stopped and held out his arm.
Ethan sank onto the oak, falling into memories he hadn't known still existed. The smell of beeswax votives and linseed-oiled woodwork jarred loose fragments of verses and a lifetime of sermons.
"Scoot over, lad." The reverend's voice boomed, expanding to the farthest corners of the high ceiling.
Ethan nodded toward the closed front doors. "I appreciate what you did out there. But honestly, there's no need to waste your breath on the likes of me. I'll just sit here awhile and then be gone. Don't worry. I won't pilfer your candlesticks on my way out."
A slow smile spread across the man's face, tightening his weathered skin. He shook his head, grey hair shorn like an over-mown pasture. "I don't care about lost candlesticks, lad.
I care about lost souls. Now ... move over."
Blowing out a long breath, Ethan slid aside. The constable would have been better company than a clergyman. He gritted his teeth and waited, hoping the reverend's lecture would be mercifully short.
The wood groaned as the fellow lowered himself next to Ethan. "The name's Newton, lad. John Newton. And you are?"
"Ethan Goodwin," he ground out.
"That vein in the side of your neck is going to pop if you don't relax, lad." Newton's voice had a smile in it.
"Look, Reverend, allow me to be plain." Ethan angled to face the man. Better to get this over with in a direct manner than beat around the burning bush. "I don't believe in God. Not anymore."
Newton laughed. Outright. Large and toothy and genuinely delighted. His shoulders shook, and he ended up wiping moisture from the corners of his eyes.
Ethan's jaw dropped. He'd seen a lot of queer sights on the London streets, but never a clergyman laughing as lustily as a sailor.
"Hah! None of that matters, lad. God believes in you. Your belief or lack of it doesn't change His existence."
Ethan scrubbed his face with both hands. Maybe he was beyond tired. Surely this conversation was a dream. Where was the reverend's condemnation? His holier-than-thou judgment? "Look, Reverend, you saw what I was about to do out there. What I am." He lifted his chin and locked gazes with the man. "I, sir, am a thief. I won't pretend otherwise."
The reverend didn't flinch. "I'm not asking you to."
A smile twitched Ethan's lips. "Oh, I see. Of course. You ask nothing of me. Very clever. It's what the Lord asks, eh, Reverend?"
"The Lord?" Newton's brows rose like a swell in the sea. "What does the Lord require of you? Is it to make your own peace? He would as soon require you to make a new heaven and a new earth. Is it to keep your own soul? No more than He requires you to keep the sun in its course. His own arm has wrought salvation, lad, and He will secure it. None but this does He require ... to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly. The methods of His grace will enable you to do so, not anything I have to say."
Stunned, Ethan sank back, grateful the pew upheld him. Slowly, he shook his head. "You would not say such things if you knew fully the wretch that sits here before you, sir."
"Nor would you remain in the same room with a sinner such as I." Newton reached out his hand, placing a calloused palm on Ethan's leg. "Which is neither here nor there, for God knows."
Ethan's mouth dried, teeth tasting like bones. Sudden clarity struck him a powerful kidney punch, and he slipped forward, knees grinding onto the floor. He clutched the pew in front of him, holding tight to keep the world from tilting.
The awful truth of the man's words was cold and unyielding, relentless as the stone floor and as hard. He grasped tighter, digging into the wood as it splintered into the virgin flesh between nail and finger. No hellfire, not one word of gnashing teeth or eternal pain cut into his soul as brutally as those two little words.
Excerpted from A HEART DECEIVED by MICHELLE GRIEP. Copyright © 2013 Michelle Griep. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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