It is a truth universally acknowledged that a lady of rank and distinction is no match for an impoverished preacher. Yet Damian Hathaway is entranced from the moment he spies Miss Lindsay Phillips entering his church. She doesn't appear any different from the other pampered society ladies—and she's betrothed to a gentleman of the ton. But Damian is determined to find the pure heart he's sure exists underneath all the ruffles and lace. The unlikely friendship formed by Damian and Lindsay is a revelation to them both, but is frowned upon by her parents—and Damian's parishioners. Torn between two worlds, the pair must trust that their love can bridge the divide—and conquer all.
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Ruth Axtell Morren now writes under Ruth Axtell.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
London, April 1812
"'I have found David, the son of Jesse, a man after mine own heart'." Damien paused in the reading of the scripture and looked from the pulpit to the congregation below him.
St. George's Chapel was filled to overflowing. Not due solely to his preaching, unfortunately, although his flock had been growing steadily in the last few years since he'd been curate there.
No, it was not the service or his preaching that brought most people out this Sunday to morning prayer, but scandal.
Damien's glance strayed to the chancel where his sister sat beside her intended. Jonah Quinn, a man who'd escaped the gallows and been a fugitive from the law, had only last week received a royal pardon from the prince regent himself.
Overnight, Jonah, Damien and his sister had become objects of notoriety. The fashionable world from nearby Mayfair flocked to catch a glimpse of the man who'd escaped detection from the magistrates by hiding out in Damien's own parsonage.
A rustle of someone's prayer book pulled Damien's thoughts back to the sermon at hand. His business was not what had brought people into the house of God that morning, but what they would take with them when they left.
"How is your heart with God today?" As he asked the question, his gaze roamed over the congregation once again, stopping here and there to make eye contact with a parishioner. Most quickly averted their eyes.
His attention was caught by a young lady in the front pew. For a few seconds, he lost his train of thought. She was looking at him as if drinking in each word.
Clearing his throat, he looked back down at his notes, wishing all his parishioners listened so attentively.
"Is your heart condemning you when you come before the Lord in prayer?"
Damien's voice grew soft and there was little sound coming from the congregation. He continued to ask the probing questions, questions he himself had dealt with in his earlier life when he'd felt inadequate to fill the shoes of a preacher.
"God's word tells us that there is no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus." He grasped the sides of the pulpit, his voice rising. He no longer needed to look down at his notes as his words tumbled forth.
His attention returned time and again to the young lady. Her look never wavered. What had brought her this morning? She certainly didn't behave like those interested in the latest scandal. Not once had her glance drifted toward Jonah, unlike so many of the congregation.
The young lady was sitting beside an older woman. Damien recognized neither. Both were fashionably dressed. Were they part of the Mayfair crowd squeezed into the pews that morning?
As soon as the service was over, Damien went into the vestry to remove his stole and surplice, then made his way to the church's entry in his black cassock to greet the parishioners. Thinking of the moment he would face the young lady, he felt a brief qualm as he listened to the tap of his wooden leg against the hard floor. Would a flicker of distaste mar her pretty features? The worry was quickly gone. What did it matter what she thought? Chastising himself briefly for his vanity, he joined his sister and Jonah who were already at the door.
"Good morning, Reverend Hathaway. Wonderful sermon." He returned handshakes and greetings, thanking those who commended him on the sermon.
Many of those who were strangers hardly gave him a nod before turning an eager eye to Florence and Jonah. Damien glanced their way but saw at once that his future brother-in-law didn't need help from him. Jonah shook hands and smiled broadly at one and all, answering those who were bold enough to ask him about his pardon.
He chuckled, rubbing his muscular neck. "Aye, the noose was already nipping at me throat 'ere I was rescued. No, I never did ken who they were." His listeners' eyes popped open wide, their mouths hanging slack in wonder.
"Good morning, Reverend Hathaway."
Damien turned to greet an elderly parishioner. "Good morning, Mrs. Oliver. How nice to see you out again. How are you feeling this fine April morning?"
The white-haired lady smiled beneath the deep rim of her straw bonnet. "Praise be to God, I am feeling quite myself again. After you prayed for me, the rheumatism in my joints subsided." She patted his hand. "You were so kind to visit me while I was housebound."
"I am thankful to have you back among us."
With a last pat to his hand, she indicated the ladies behind her in the line—and Damien was caught by the large brown eyes of the beautiful young lady of the front pew.
With an effort, he pulled his focus from her and turned to the older lady, intensely aware of his deformity.
"I'd like to present you to my dear friend, Miss Yates," Mrs. Oliver went on in her friendly tone, oblivious to his inner turmoil. "And this is her young cousin, Miss Phillips, just returned to London from school."
He bowed to the older lady. "How do you do?" Everything about her indicated a lady of rank and distinction. Her dark cloak was edged in fur, her manner dignified.
Miss Yates inclined her head slightly, a genial look in her blue eyes. "Very well, thank you. I found your sermon most edifying. I look forward to visiting again."
Unable to resist the sincerity in her tone, he smiled. "You are always welcome. Please come any Sunday."
Damien tried to appear calm and untroubled as he prepared to bring his attention to Miss Phillips. It had been merely a trick of the light that had made her appear so ethereally lovely from his vantage of the pulpit, he told himself.
Nevertheless, a flush crept from the edges of his white clerical collar to his hairline as he turned to her.
The impact of her honey-brown eyes almost knocked him over. They were framed by lashes a shade darker. Tawny eyebrows created an arresting contrast to her golden hair.
She was even lovelier up close than she'd appeared in the pew. Blond curls framed a heart-shaped face. A finely chiseled nose curved up the tiniest bit at the end.
"How do you do?" he finally managed.
She murmured something indistinct and looked down.
He cleared his throat, searching frantically for something to say—anything to prolong the moment. But his mind had suddenly emptied of all lofty thoughts. He might never have preached an edifying sermon moments ago. "I'm honored you joined our humble congregation today." As soon as the words were out, his face grew warm. He sounded as if he were toadying for a compliment.
She looked up immediately. Her smile lit up the rich brown depths of her eyes and brought radiance to the delicate pink of her cheeks. "Oh, no, sir—it is we who are honored. I mean—that is to say..."
Her evident confusion eased his own agitation. "I hope you enjoyed the service."
"Oh, yes, sir—Reverend—" She stopped.
A kindred feeling stirred inside him as he realized how shy she was. She was very young, perhaps no more than seventeen or eighteen.
He forgot his own fears in his wish to put her at ease. "Hathaway."
"I beg your pardon, Reverend Hathaway."
He was unaccustomed to reacting so to a young lady, but then he'd never been so close to one so lovely, and so obviously of rank.
Before he could think of anything else to say—and conscious of the line of people waiting behind her—she said, "I... I enjoyed your sermon, Reverend Hathaway. Very much. I mean, I'm not certain if 'enjoyed' is the correct word...."
His mouth turned up at the corner in rueful understanding. "I hope you found it thought provoking at the least."
"Oh, indeed, yes! That is a much better way to put it. I... I've never heard preaching such as yours before. It... it wasn't comfortable, and yet—" she drew her dark eyebrows together "—it filled me with something I've never felt before."
The words were what every preacher wanted to hear. He tried to dismiss the thought that the pleasure he felt from the compliment was heightened by the fact that it had come from such a lovely young creature. To hide his confusion, he turned to his sister. "May I present my sister, Florence Hathaway, and her fiancé, Jonah Quinn."
She greeted both.
"Enjoyed the preaching, did you?" Jonah asked with a smile.
Again, she blushed, but did not lower her gaze as she had with Damien. "Yes, very much."
"Our Damien always preaches a good one. Warms the insides when it doesn't feel like a punch in the gut."
Her laughter joined Jonah's. "Oh, yes! That's it exactly."
Jonah winked at both ladies. "Why don't you come 'round for tea this afternoon for more of Reverend Hathaway's wit and wisdom?"
Damien was preparing to greet the next parishioner in line when Jonah's words stopped him. His eyes sought his sister's. Florence was rarely at a loss in any situation—she would know what to say. But Florence was looking at Jonah, stunned.
An awkward silence followed when Florence did not speak up immediately to second the invitation. Damien, who knew his sister so well, realized she must be feeling nervous about entertaining ladies of such distinction. As the silence stretched out, he knew he must say something. Except for the rector and his mother, they rarely entertained members of the ton in their modest parsonage.
Damien bowed his head toward Miss Yates. "We would be honored if you would visit us this afternoon."
"We should be delighted," the older lady replied immediately. "What time would you expect us?"
Florence seemed finally to remember her obligations as hostess. "Would four o'clock suit you?"
"Four o'clock would be perfect." Miss Yates touched her young companion on the elbow. "We must be going." She bowed to the three of them. "Until this afternoon."
Damien watched them continue down the church steps and across the lawn toward a fine-looking carriage, his mind in a daze. A liveried servant sprang down and opened the carriage door for them, confirming his supposition that they were members of the upper class. When the servant slammed the door shut, Damien noted that it was decorated with a blue-and-gold crest.
"Reverend Hathaway." The peremptory tones of another female parishioner yanked his attention back to the receiving line.
"Yes, Mrs. Cooper, how lovely to see you this morning...."
Lindsay sat in their coach as it carried them down St. George's Row along the northern edge of Hyde Park. Reverend Hathaway's sermon still echoed in her ears.
His words had seemed directed at her, exhorting her in a quiet, earnest way to become a true disciple of Christ. Church sermons had never been like this before. Sermons were usually dry, delivered in the elevated tones of a minister who seemed more concerned with his elocution than the text.
Never had she heard the scriptures in such a personal way, a way that demanded something of her even though she'd always lived according to the church's laws.
"What did you think of the Hathaways, my dear?" Beatrice asked.
Lindsay turned to the older lady, a distant cousin on her mother's side who had recently come to live with her father to oversee Lindsay's coming out. "Oh, most genial," she agreed wholeheartedly, although thinking about it now, she had to admit she'd hardly noticed the reverend's sister or her betrothed in her admiration for the reverend.
"Mr. Quinn certainly seemed genial, not at all what I expected."
Lindsay remembered the large, dark-haired man's friendly manner. "Oh?"
"I meant from all I'd heard about him."
"What do you mean?"
Beatrice's eyes widened. "Don't you know? He's a former convict."
Lindsay turned on the seat and stared at her cousin. "A convict?"
"Haven't you read the papers? He was awaiting his execution at Newgate when he was rescued by a gang of ruffians. For months he escaped the eyes of the law." Beatrice shook her head with a chuckle. "It turns out all along he'd been hiding away in a parsonage right here. The magistrates were in an uproar."
"You can't mean he was here... at St. George's?"
Her cousin nodded. "The very same."
Lindsay looked away from her cousin, her thoughts in a whirl, unable to reconcile the godly man who had delivered such a quietly convicting sermon with a man who would harbor a criminal.
"He could not have stayed hidden for so long if the reverend and his sister hadn't helped him," Beatrice confirmed for her. "And to think, in the course of aiding and abetting him, Miss Hathaway fell in love with him. It is to her he owes the royal pardon he received."
"Oh, my," she breathed, hardly able to grasp it.
"It was in all the tabloids," Beatrice continued. "Of course, I'm forgetting you've been away at school and have missed the goings-on here in London."
"Tell me all the particulars. It sounds wonderfully romantic!"
By the time Beatrice had finished a story that sounded more incredible than anything in her novels, they'd arrived at Lindsay's home on Grosvenor Square in the heart of Mayfair.
Despite the happy ending to the tale, Lindsay found it almost impossible to imagine breaking the law and hiding out from the authorities. "You know, I believe it's no coincidence Mr. Quinn gave himself up to the authorities. If I had been residing under the Reverend Hathaway's roof all that time, I, too, would have been convicted of any wrongdoing and made a clean breast of things."
"Yes, I imagine the Hathaways must have influenced Mr. Quinn greatly. Reverend Hathaway appears to have a true shepherd's heart."
After the last parishioner left, Damien, his sister and Jonah used the footpath behind the church to cut across the cemetery and apple orchard to the parsonage.
Damien glanced at his sister, wondering if she would
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Book Description Steeple Hill, 2009. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. Never used!. Bookseller Inventory # P110373786506
Book Description Steeple Hill, 2009. Mass Market Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0373786506