It’s harvest time in the village of Kurland St. Mary as Lucy and Robert prepare to take their vows—but a murderer has taken an unseasonable vow of vengeance…
As Miss Lucy Harrington, daughter of the village rector, and Major Sir Robert Kurland plan their nuptials, the major is beginning to wonder if he’ll ever hear wedding bells. He’s seen complex military campaigns that involved less strategy, and he’s finding Lucy’s meddling family maddening.
When the body of Ezekiel Thurrock, the church verger, is discovered crushed by a stone gargoyle that has fallen from the bell tower, the tragic death strikes a somber note and the wedding is delayed. But the evidence suggests this was no accident, and Lucy wonders if bad blood at the village fair had anything to do with the man’s mysterious demise, since there was much bitterness over Ezekiel’s prizewinning vegetables.
As Lucy and Robert uncover long-standing village feuds, the town’s dark secrets begin to take their toll and the couple soon finds they too are in grave danger…
“But the thing is, Andrew, how long does it take a female to organize a simple wedding? When you and Mrs. Giffin married it all seemed remarkably straightforward.”
Major Sir Robert Kurland glanced down at his companion, Andrew Stanford, as they made their way along the tree-lined drive of Kurland Hall toward the village where the local fair was currently taking place.
It was a clear, crisp autumn day with a snap of winter wrapped within its deceptively sunny depths. Robert had elected to walk down to the village to stretch his injured leg, and, more importantly, to have the chance to complain to his best friend about the current state of his affairs.
“Sophia and I were both widowers, Robert, and I acquired a special license, which meant no reading of the banns was necessary. Neither of us desired a fashionably large wedding.”
“Neither do I.” Robert sighed. “All I require is a man of the cloth, my bride, and two witnesses, but apparently this shows a shocking lack of consideration for my bride’s family and her feelings.”
“Miss Harrington is the niece of an earl, my friend.” Andrew laughed. “You cannot expect her family to accept such a paltry event. She needs to be married off in style.”
Robert snorted. “It is more like a circus. There are bride clothes to be ordered and made, invitations to be sent to the far corners of the earth to gather the Harringtons in one place, and that must be in London at St. George’s Hanover Square, even though I detest London and they all know it.” He paused to take a breath. “In truth, I despair of ever getting Miss Harrington up the aisle.”
“Have you spoken to her about this matter?”
“How can I? Every time I see her she is preoccupied with endless lists and problems. And with Miss Chingford acting as her watchdog, I’ve barely had a moment alone with her.”
Andrew chuckled and quickly turned it into a cough when Robert glared at him.
“You find this amusing?”
“I’m sorry, my friend. You’re a military man. Perhaps you need to alter your strategy.”
“And do what? Surrender? I’ll be damned if I’m not consulted about my own wedding.”
Robert looked ahead at the old church of Kurland St. Mary, which stood opposite the far newer rectory. Beyond the church lay the village green, which was currently covered in tentlike structures that reminded him of an ill-disciplined military camp. Half the village, and all of the local children, appeared to be milling around the tents. Foley, his butler, had asked for leave for the staff at Kurland Hall to visit the fair, which Robert had granted. In fact, he could see his stable boy, Joseph Cobbins, running across the grass toward the Punch and Judy show. It was good to see the boy doing something childish for once.
“Speak to Miss Harrington. I’m sure she will be able to allay your fears. You do want to marry her, don’t you, Robert?”
“Of course I do.”
“Then mayhap this is the price you will have to pay to win your fair maiden.”
Robert caught a glimpse of a gaggle of females leaving the rectory and slightly increased his pace. “Perhaps I will be allowed a moment alone with my betrothed at the fair. If I can separate her from the gorgon.”
“How about I engage Miss Chingford in conversation while you take Miss Harrington to view the entries in the harvest festival tent? You are one of the judges anyway, aren’t you?”
“Apparently.” Robert groaned. “Last year I wasn’t well enough to participate. My betrothed tells me it is my duty to be involved, and I have learned to heed her words.”
Andrew slapped him on the back. “Spoken like a man ready to be leg shackled. Look, I see Miss Chingford and her sister up ahead. Why don’t you find Miss Harrington and carry her off?”
“I wish I could,” Robert grumbled. “An elopement to Gretna Green sounds like a remarkably fine idea at this point.”
Andrew shook his head, and stepped in front of Robert, his charming smile in place as he offered both of the Chingford ladies an arm, and bore them off in search of his wife.
Robert discovered his intended crouched down in front of a small child wiping his rather snotty nose. She wore a plain blue bonnet that obscured her features, and a serviceable black cloak. Leaning on his cane, he offered her his hand to rise.
“Good afternoon, Miss Harrington.”
“Major Kurland!” She turned toward him, a smile lightening her usual calm expression. “I am so glad to see you.”
“Really? Usually these days you tell me to go away and leave you in peace.”
She sighed as she took his arm. “Are you still sulking?”
“Gentlemen do not sulk. I merely chose to disagree with you about the arrangements for our wedding. I am maintaining a dignified silence until you come to your senses, and realize I am right.”
“About the benefits of eloping?” She was leading him toward one of the tents. “Surely that was a jest.”
“If it was, it came from my deep sense of exasperation at the ridiculous amount of foolishness a wedding seems to encourage.”
“We have already had this conversation several times, sir. I cannot simply run away with you.”
Just before they reached the entrance, Robert took a step to the side and drew Miss Harrington down a narrow alley between two of the tents. It was dark, and he had to pick his way carefully to avoid the pegs and ropes anchoring the structures to the ground.
“Major Kurland! Wherever are you going?”
He turned to her, one hand cupping her chin. “Why not?”
She searched his face, her expression worried. “Because it appears that I am not in control of this event, either. My father and uncle are engaged in some kind of unofficial war over who will provide the best and most elaborate wedding for one of their children. It is obvious that my uncle will win, but it seems I am merely another pawn in their lifelong competition.”
He leaned in and rubbed his nose against hers. “Tell them all to go to the devil and run away with me.”
“And create gossip about my family? I cannot do it. I have Anna’s reputation to consider as well as that of my cousins. Their chances of making a good marriage would suffer if I was considered to have behaved irresponsibly.”
“But we’d be married.”
“I know.” She sighed. “But one cannot always be thinking of oneself.”
“I can.” He kissed her firmly on the mouth.
She pressed her hands against his chest. “Major Kurland, this is hardly the time, or the place for this kind of —”
He kissed her again, and with a soft sound she kissed him back, and then stepped away. “That’s quite enough of that.”
“I want you in my house, and in my bed, Lucy Harrington.”
“And I want to be there,” she stuttered. “I mean, I want to be your wife. Please be patient, Robert, I beg you.”
He sighed. “It seems I have no choice. Perhaps I should speak to your father again.”
“Or my aunt Jane. She seems to be in charge of everything.”
Robert took her hand and led her toward the rear of the tents. “Mayhap I should set Aunt Rose on her. She recently organized a society wedding in no time at all.”
“For a very good reason.” Miss Harrington flicked a wry glance at him. “I believe the bride was in an interesting condition.”
Robert opened his mouth, but his betrothed held up a gloved finger. “And please do not even entertain the notion of that being a way to speed up our wedding!”
“You like my kisses.”
“I do, but I would prefer to share the … the rest of it in the sanctity of our marriage bed.”
“Thus speaks the rector’s daughter.” Robert offered her his arm. “Shall we go and judge the harvest fruits and vegetables? Foley tells me that Mr. Pethridge from the Kurland Hall Home Farm has entered some very strong candidates.”
She glanced up at him as they walked decorously back to the front of the tent. “Are you angry with me?”
“Are you quite certain?”
“I am certainly exasperated, but I do wish to marry you, so I suppose I will have to be patient.”
She patted his sleeve. “Thank you.”
He glanced down as he lifted the flap of the tent to allow her to enter ahead of him. “But not for very much longer.”
The air inside the tent was thick with the earthy scents of rows of neatly laid out produce, flowers, and local handicrafts. There were a large number of persons viewing the offerings, and commenting on the splendor or lack of it in each specimen with unusual frankness.
Miss Harrington steered him toward the first table, which was covered in serried rows of carrots rather like ranks of soldiers. And like any battalion, the size and shape of the carrots differed quite significantly.
Robert lowered his voice. “What exactly am I supposed to be doing?”
“Didn’t your parents ever bring you to the fair?” Miss Harrington asked, handing him a piece of paper with several numbers on it that obviously related to the anonymous entries.
“I’m fairly certain they did, but I doubt I spent time perusing rows of vegetables. I was far more interested in running wild with the village lads, and getting up to mischief.”
“Each entrant provides three samples from their garden. As a judge you must decide which entry as a whole is the best.”
“So if there is one huge carrot and two smaller ones that’s not as prize worthy as three large carrots of the same size?”
“Exactly.” Miss Harrington favored him with an approving smile. “Can I leave you to pick your top three in each category while I deal with the preserves and cakes?”
“If you must.”
She walked away and was soon busy at the other end of the tent sampling far more interesting things than Robert’s raw vegetables. But it was his duty to support the village so he soldiered on, noting his choices on the paper she’d given him as he worked his way through tables full of leeks and cabbages, onions and potatoes.
While he considered his choices he was aware of the sense of being under covert observation from several pairs of eyes. Considering it was just a local contest he felt under more pressure than he had perhaps anticipated.
Eventually, he worked his way through the crowd toward Miss Harrington, where she was speaking to Andrew’s wife, and a man he didn’t recognize.
Miss Harrington summoned him to her side and turned to the rotund gentleman beside her. “I don’t believe you’ve been introduced to our newest guest at the rectory, sir. Major Sir Robert Kurland, this is Mr. Nathaniel Thurrock.”
“Delighted to meet you, Sir Robert, or do you prefer to maintain your military rank?”
“Sir Robert will do perfectly well.”
Mr. Thurrock bowed with some difficulty, and Robert distinctly heard the creak of a corset.
“A pleasure, sir, a great pleasure.”
“Mr. Thurrock, are you perhaps related to our estimable verger?”
“He’s my brother. I’m down from Cambridge visiting him this past two weeks.”
Robert pictured the tall, thin, self-effacing verger, and could see little family resemblance. “I do hope you are enjoying your visit.”
“Indeed I am. The rector and I have corresponded for several years about matters relating to the Thurrock family and other interesting issues of a historical nature about the county of Hertfordshire. We were at university together.” He smoothed the lapels of his coat. “I confess, although my profession is as a man of law, I am something of an amateur historian in my spare time.”
“How fascinating.” Robert attempted to catch Miss Harrington’s eye. “You must come up to the hall, and have dinner before you leave.”
“That would be very generous of you, sir, very generous indeed.” Mr. Thurrock bowed deeply. “I was hoping to ask for the favor of a peek at your estate records at some point, but unsure whether I would be considered worthy enough to approach you.”
Robert raised an eyebrow. “I’m hardly an ogre, Mr. Thurrock. I’m sure my land agent, Mr. Fletcher, would be more than happy to allow you access to anything you desire.”
“That is very good of you, Sir Robert. In truth, most kind and obliging.” Mr. Thurrock smiled at Miss Harrington. “Your confidence in Sir Robert was justified, ma’am. He is indeed most amiable.”
“When do you leave the village, Mr. Thurrock?” Robert asked as he spotted his young land agent coming into the tent and beckoned him over.
“Not for another week or so, sir.”
Robert smiled at Dermot Fletcher, the younger brother of the village doctor and Robert’s newest employee.
“Dermot, may I introduce you to Mr. Nathaniel Thurrock? He wishes to study the family archives at Kurland Hall. Please arrange a suitable date and time for him to meet with you at the hall, and then sit down to dinner with us in the evening.”
“Yes, Sir Robert.”
Nodding briefly at Mr. Thurrock, Robert offered Miss Harrington his arm and steered her away from the entrance. At the other end of the tent the tall verger was talking to Andrew and the Chingford sisters, who were studying the handicraft displays.
“Where do the fruit and vegetables go after the contest?” Robert asked.
“Most of it is donated to the harvest festival display in the church. After that it either goes back to the owner, is given to the poorhouse, or taken to the pig farm near Kurland St. Anne.”
“I’m glad to hear it doesn’t go to waste. After the terrible summers we’ve had the last two years, there are plenty of mouths to feed.”
Robert’s gaze shifted to the flatness of the horizon and the never-ending struggle to drain his land, grow decent crops, and avoid flooding. If he hadn’t insisted on joining the army he would have been far more prepared for the agricultural disasters of the last two years. He could only thank God that unlike most landowners his income derived mainly from trade and industrialization. Dirty words to some of the gentry, but Robert didn’t care if it kept his people alive.
“So did you pick your winners?”
Robert’s thoughts flew back to Miss Harrington. “I have them written down, as requested.”
She took the sheets and started to read, her brow furrowing. “You can’t do it like this. One has to use one’s diplomatic skills to make sure that every family in the village wins at least something.”
He took the list back. “That would be cheating, my dear. When I made my choices I had no idea which number related to which villager. I chose the best, and I stand by my decisions.”
“I don’t have time to argue with you about this, but be prepared for some rather unhappy competitors.”
“As if anyone will care about such a piffling thing.”
She frowned. “Major, you have no idea …”
An ominous rumble of thunder had even more people crowding into the tent. The smell of the great unwashed, and the slightly damp, reminded Robert all too forcibly of his days in the cavalry.
“Can we announce the winners, now?”
Miss Harrington was looking around her as he spoke. “There is my father. He will be revealing the winners while we give away the prizes. Let’s attempt to persuade him to start right away.”
* * *
Lucy glanced down the list the major had handed her, added the real winners’ names, and wondered whether she had time to substitute a list of her own. Knowing the irascible nature of her betrothed she had no doubt that if she attempted to change a thing he would stand up and denounce her. The tent was now almost full, and her father was beckoning her and the major onto the temporary stage.
In one corner of the tent Penelope Chingford was in close conversation with Dr. Fletcher. Neither of them was smiling, which was quite usual, as they seemed to knock heads over everything, and gained an enormous amount of pleasure from doing so. If she didn’t know better, she would believe Penelope was attracted to the dratted man. But her enemy-turned-unlikely-friend had her sights set on marrying a man of property and wealth, neither of which the local doctor possessed.
“Lucy, come along, my dear. I’m waiting,” her father called out, his tone rather peevish.
She gathered her skirts and stepped up onto the temporary dais.
“Here you are, Father. My list and Major Kurland’s of all the winners.”
“Thank you.” Her father put on his spectacles and cleared his throat loudly. “May I have your attention, everyone? Both Major Sir Robert Kurland and myself would like to thank you for attending the fair, and for offering your best produce to our contest. I’ll wager it was a hard decision to pick your winners, eh, Major?”
Major Kurland bowed. “Indeed it was, Rector.”
“Then I shall start by revealing the name of the winner for the best turnip.”
Standing as she was on the raised stage, Lucy had an excellent view of all the watching faces. She quailed as her father carried on announcing the victors, and the mumbling and muttering grew louder.