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Edward Denning tugged at the stiff collar that poked his neck uncomfortably. His mother insisted he dress in the mode, though he refused to have neckpoints so high he wouldn't be able to turn his head. Nevertheless, his sister, Angella, declared that in his new turn out he was a regular nob.
He wasn't sure where she picked up the cant phrases she relished using to the chagrin of their lady mother. He merely shook his head and tweaked a curl that escaped her hairpiece.
Again he tugged at the collar. Sensing his mother's gaze, he pulled down his hand and sent her a grimace. She gave him a knowing look. He sighed. He knew that look and straightened. He never did well in very formal occasions. He wondered how often he'd even wear his jacket and breeches after tonight. Yet this night was in his honor.
He was thankful, but could not help wishing for his home in Little Cambrage with his vicar father, Reverend Denning, and his lady mother. He'd been gone so many years studying for the ministry. Now that he'd completed his studies and made his father and mother proud, he would love to spend some time reading and relaxing under the tall trees in the back garden.
There would not be much time at home, and that pained him. The past couple of years, he'd been in contact with William Carey, one of the first missionaries to India, and had begun the transition to the mission field.
While many of his friends who were going into the Church of England drew back in horror that he would even consider associating with dissenters of the Baptist stamp, others, such as his parents and his mentor in London, Reverend Jeremiah, understood and embraced his call to India.
From the time he was in leading strings, following his father on rounds of visitation with his parishioners, he desired to become a vicar like his father. Reverend Denning's was not a faith left at the church on Sunday mornings. No matter what the problem, no matter who needed help, Reverend Denning would do what he could.
That the Earl of Lucashire offered to hold a reception for Edward after his commissioning service was beyond anything he or his parents expected. The earl had always favored his father. In fact, it was only after the fact that Edward learned the earl had been his benefactor, paying his way through school. He never wondered where the finances came from. He should have, considering his father's small stipend and how generous he was with what he had.
Edward was humbled that the earl would support his choice to go to India instead of becoming a vicar in one of the earl's own livings, though the nobleman made it abundantly clear that option was always open.
The reception at Lucashire Hall was everything a young man could have wanted. His little sister, Angel-la's, eyes widened at the starched-up, uniformed servants and the array of delicacies available to the guests. Her hand clung to his and he was glad for the contact. Nerves unsettled his insides and he hoped he would not disgrace himself or his parents during the evening. After all, he knew only a small number of the guests. Others, he guessed were friends of the earl or his own parents. He smiled and shook hands and listened to inane comments.
After the first rush of congratulations and after most guests had drifted into private groups to talk, Angella approached him. "Come, Edward." Angella, always the hoyden, tugged on his arm. "There is someone I wish you to meet."
He laughed and allowed her to pull him away from a dull conversation between peers who liked to hear their own opinions spoken far too much. "All right. All right." He followed her to a young woman about her age who seemed to be doing little but standing alone by the hearth. "Whoa, Angella. I'm not here to entertain one of your little friends," he said quietly so the young woman would not overhear.
"Oh, Edward." Angella all but stamped her foot.
"You must meet her. You will like her, I promise." What could he do since the young woman, tall for her age, turned her gaze on them?
While dressed in the mode, she moved with a nervous awkwardness that made Edward want to stop her movements. But when she turned her brown eyes on him, he gulped. There was something so deep and compassionate in those eyes that he felt himself drowning. He scarcely heard his sister's introductions and stumbled as he took her hand. "Miss Miss."
"Miss Elizabeth Carrington, Betsy," supplied his smug sister.
"Ah, Miss Carrington. Pleased." He had learned to do the pretty while in London and knew how to behave in polite society. What he didn't understand was the reason Angella was so intent on the introduction.
"Betsy, my brother, Edward Denning."
The young woman's soft, hesitant tone drew out his protective instincts. "Congratulations. It must be terribly exciting knowing you will soon be sharing the message of Christ with those who live in darkness and have never heard His message of love and hope."
Her understanding took him by surprise. Edward forgot she was still in the schoolroom, forgot he should be circulating among those invited on his account, forgot women weren't supposed to be interested in what he would be doing. Instead, he found himself sitting with his sister and a very attentive young woman whose questions showed she knew and cared what he was about. Later, he found it incredible that he'd spent so much time with the brown-eyed young woman. When his mother found him and reminded him of his obligations, he left Betsy's side with reluctance. Her soft voice stayed with him as she promised to keep him in her prayers.
Miss Elizabeth Carrington watched Edward follow his mother with a sense of both excitement and disquiet. There was so much she wanted to say to him and so much she could not, would not say. In the short time they were together, her heart beat for him. He treated her with a respect and dignity she had not expected from a grown man of a chit still in the schoolroom and not yet presented. If only she were older. If only she weren't so awkward.
Angella confronted her. "Isn't my brother a swell?"
Betsy laughed, covering her mouth with her gloved hand. "That may be doing it up a bit brown." She paused. "But he is indeed a fine figure of a man."
Angella all but danced on her dainty feet. "And he likes you almost as much as you like him."
Color rose in Betsy's cheeks. She hoped no one overheard the comment. "Shh." Her friend was much too inclined to state her opinion for all the world to hear.
Angella lowered her voice. "Well, it is true. I wish he was not going so far away."
Silently Betsy agreed, and yet his willingness to follow what he believed to be God's direction was one of the very things that drew her to him.
She blushed again when Angella whispered, "He's better than his picture, isn't he?"
Betsy watched Edward interacting with the peers and others at the reception with such ease. "Oh yes, much better." Her thoughts spun back to her introduction to the man who didn't even know he'd captured her heart. It was two years earlier and she had been a mere thirteen at the time. It happened at a special birthday celebration for the earl's only son, her cousin Spensor, who was like a brother to her.
As long as Betsy had the protection of her cousin, she enjoyed the food and games. Eventually, he had guests to meet and greet and she was once more left on her own. As she made her way toward her mother, who was on the other side of the lawn talking to a woman who emphasized her words with elaborate hand movements, the young viscount who earlier had challenged her to a horse race and which she'd won handily, fell into step beside her.
"Why are you here?" she asked, nervous at his nearness.
"I fear I took losing the race rather poorly." He flicked away a tiny winged creature that had the audacity to land on his fine, tailored jacket.
Betsy stopped and glanced over at him. "Don't tell me you came to apologize for your singular lack of manners."
"Not exactly." He dipped his head as though in acknowledgment of his behavior, and Betsy actually felt her hopes rise.
"A rematch. Only I get to ride that prime piece of cattle this time." He hesitated.
Betsy pulled her shawl more closely around her shoulders as she felt the cool of the late afternoon breeze on her skin. "I do not think that wise."
A leer twisted his otherwise pleasant features. "As I thought. Without the stallion, you have nothingare nothing. Come." He took her arm as he tried to goad her into doing his bidding.
Betsy tried to pull away, but the viscount's grip bruised her arm. "No! Let me go." She spoke quietly so as not to cause a scene. His low-spoken words brought forth a blush as he continued to force her to accompany him.
Suddenly, a young lady stood in his way. A bright smile spread across her face. "Oh, hello, there." She addressed Betsy, who had never seen the girl before. The girl's presence halted the viscount.
"We were just." he said.
The young woman stepped so close, he was forced to drop his hold. She took Betsy's arm. "It has been an age since we had a regular coz. Been trying to find you all day." She made it sound as though the whole was quite upsetting. "Now that I've found you, I have to show you what I promised."
She stared at the viscount as though daring him to interfere. "You will excuse us?"
From the look on his face he had no idea how to go on and allowed the strange young woman to walk away with Betsy.
Once they were out of sight, she dropped Betsy's arm. "Sorry to be so forward, Miss Carrington, but you looked like you needed rescuing."
Betsy rubbed her arm where the viscount had gripped it. "Thank you for your timely rescue. You obviously know me, but " She eyed the petite young woman with intense green eyes.
"Yes. Sorry. I am Angella Denning. The Reverend Denning of Little Cambrage is my father."
Betsy grinned at the shorter girl. "Well, Miss Angella Denning, I thank you for the timely rescue. He was being."
"Insufferable. Bullies always are."
Betsy felt a kinship with the vicar's daughter. "So they are. Am I right that you know them, as well?"
"Quite. My brother usually tries to protect me from the village bullies." Angella smiled. "Earlier I saw you with His Lordship. I think he is your protector."
Betsy was surprised at how much Angella observed. "Yes, my cousin Spensor has always been most kind. But he cannot be there all the time."
Again, Angella grinned. "So I stepped in. Miss Car-rington, I hope I didn't overstep."
"No indeed. In fact, I am thankful indeed. Maybe together we can keep them all at bay."
Angella inclined her head and took the arm Betsy held out. "And none of this Miss Carrington rot. To you, I am simply Betsy." She warmed in Angella's easy acceptance.
Not much later Angella's mother hurried to her daughter's side. "Oh dear. I forgot that basket I packed for today. I cannot believe I did not think of it earlier. I need to retrieve it."
Angella stopped her mother with "Why don't I find Father? He'll go for it."
Angella's mother, every inch the lady and not what Betsy expected of a vicar's wife, readily assented.
"Come, Betsy. Let's find Father. Maybe he'll let us ride with him."
Angella hesitated as though realizing the difference in their stations. "That is"
Betsy stopped that nonsense. "I'd like nothing better than to take a break from all this."
Not long thereafter Reverend Denning helped Betsy and Angella from the gig. "Now, girls, we won't be long, but there is something I want to check before we return with your mother's basket."
Angella led Betsy into the small but cozy home. Betsy was surprised by the taste with which it had been decorated. "Why, this is very nice." She caught the wry grin on Angella's face and blushed. "I've never been in a place like this before."
With that, Angella showed Betsy around the house, not that there was much to see. As they returned to the small drawing room, Betsy stopped before the family painting over the fireplace mantel. The face of the young man in the painting caught her attention. His deep blue eyes seemed to look right into her heart. "You you have a brother?"
Angella nodded and stared up at the painting. "It's not a masterpiece like the paintings at Lucashire Hall, but the itinerant painter did a credible job. Finished, oh, about six months ago."
Betsy brought her attention back to the young man. "Your brother." She had to know more.
"Yes, my friend, my protector, my big brother." No doubt Angella was proud of him.
"He wasn't at Lucashire."
"No, Edward is off training to be a minister of the gospel. He has always wanted to help others. Very like Father, he is."
Betsy could scarcely breathe. "Edward. It is a strong name, that. He has deep, wise, kind eyes." She did not know what else to say. All she knew was that she could not get enough of the stories Angella was more than willing to tell about her brother, and she never ever forgot the picture on the mantel of that humble vicarage. It was then Betsy began to pray for the man in the picture.