I hope you enjoy this exclusive excerpt from the opening pages of Improper Proposals. If you’d like to read excerpts from the previous books in the Improper Series, Improper Relations and Improper Arrangements, please click here.
October 1869, Aston Tirrold, Berkshire, England
I was in the parlor, the largest room in the rectory, together with every other inhabitant of the village. Old and young, highborn and common, they had all come to pay their respects to their vicar, dead of a fever three days earlier. Their vicar and my husband, my John, my beloved.
To make room for everyone, nearly all the furniture had been cleared from the parlor and dining room. A chair had been set out for me in front of the big bay window, with a little piecrust table for my untouched cup of tea, and another chair pulled close so our friends and neighbors might directly relay their condolences.
One by one they took their turn, a parade of the kind and good of our parish. John had sat with them, had held their hands, had offered comfort and wisdom when they suffered, and now that he was gone they sought to do the same for me. I was grateful, to my soul I was grateful, but their faces had long since begun to blur before me, their words of solace indistinguishable from the rumble of conversation that filled the room, and I longed for solitude and quiet so badly I could almost taste it.
Mr. Thomson bid me farewell and was instantly replaced by Mrs. Petrie, a relative newcomer to the parish. She was young, no more than twenty, and nearing her confinement for her second child.
She took my hand and grasped it tight, her eyes brimming with tears. “I never thanked him properly,” she said.
“I’m sure he didn’t—”
“He was so good to us when our dear little one died last year. He sat with me for hours, you know. Listening, and offering such comfort. I only wish I could help you as he helped me.”
“Your presence alone is a great comfort,” I said, and it was true, for I would never tire of listening to stories of my husband’s many kindnesses.
“I also want to thank you, Mrs. Boothroyd. I will never forget how welcoming you were when I was new to Aston Tirrold. Do you recall when you first came to visit me? I served you burned biscuits and cold tea and you held my hand as I wept and complained.”
“You were simply overwhelmed by your new duties. Most brides are.”
“Your advice was so helpful. I treasure the book of recipes you wrote out for me. Everyone goes on about Mrs. Beeton and her guide, but your advice was a hundred times more useful. And if ever I may do a kindness to you, or help you in any way, I pray you will come to me.”
I can’t remember how I responded, but presumably I thanked her and said I looked forward to seeing her again in happier times. Soon she was replaced by another, and another, and it wasn’t until the sun hung low in the amber autumn sky that the last of the guests had departed.
I retreated to my bedchamber, leaving the last of the tidying up to the housekeeper and maids, but once there I didn’t so much as kick off my shoes. Instead I lay on the bed, cocooned in my widow’s weeds, and stared at the ceiling. How odd that I had never before noticed the cracks in the plaster and the strange patterns they made.
But then I had scarcely ever been in my bed after dawn. There had always been so much to do. Even now, after such a day, I yearned to make myself useful, to still my melancholic thoughts with the panacea of absorbing work.
I really ought to begin a list of all that needed to be done before I vacated the rectory. The new incumbent, together with his wife and children, would arrive in a fortnight. I was to move into a cottage in the village, scarcely more than a stone’s throw away. It had all been arranged.
I knew the cottage, for I had visited its previous occupant, Mrs. Moreton, many times. She’d been a dear old lady, and had kept her home in good order until her final illness last year. It was a pretty place, solidly built, with ancient brick walls that vanished beneath a curtain of fragrant damask roses each summer and a thatched roof that swooped low over deep-set windows.
But it was terribly small, with only a sitting room and kitchen on the main floor and two small chambers above. I would have to leave behind most of the furniture, for there wouldn’t be room for it. I would have to leave behind this bed. My bride’s bed, my marriage bed. I had slept every night of the past eleven years in this bed. My husband had died in it, in my arms, borne away by a fever in a matter of days.
What would I do without him? My entire life had revolved around John, around his work at St. Michael’s and the work I did as his wife. But that was over, done, and soon another woman would come to Aston Tirrold and take up my place.
No one needed me now. My husband was dead and buried. I had no children. My parents were dead and my only brother lived in India. I was alone in the world.
What would I do? What on earth would I do?