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Temptations of a Wallflower (The Wicked Quills of London #3)

By:Eva Leigh

o." He took her small, powdery hands in his.

"I can't be accused of favoritism," Lady Hutton replied, sniffing. "Though," she added conspiratorially, "you certainly received the bounty of the looks. You're the image of your father. No wonder he stole my heart." She sighed. "How the other girls envied me when he made his suit. I held him off, you know, just for appearance's sake, but I couldn't wait too long, lest he find another gel to take my place."

Jeremy had heard this story his whole life, but he always indulged his mother. "As though any girl could replace you," he answered, as he usually did.

Lady Hutton tapped him playfully on his arm. "I didn't realize the Church required vicars to flatter old women."

"I am, in all things, scrupulously honest." He bowed. "A hazard of the profession."

"Oh, but you were ever a truthful boy," she said with an almost despairing shake of her head. "Used to sneak off to go swimming in the middle of the night, then came running to us full of confession."

He hadn't abandoned his habit of midnight swimming. The pull of the water along his body, the burn of his muscles, the moonlight and liquid isolation. Sometimes he felt it was the only thing that kept him from descending into bored melancholy.

A vicar's life was, if anything, marked by quiet, solitary routine. The pinnacle of morality was a lonely place to be.

"You were marked for the Church from an early age, my darling," his mother continued. "Your father wouldn't have it any other way."

And she hadn't protested, either. "Fortunate, then, that I didn't become a lion tamer."

"You have the souls of your parishioners to tame and guide," Lady Hutton answered. "A much more noble and dangerous endeavor."

The butler, standing nearby, coughed quietly.

"Oh, all right, Jeffries," Lady Hutton said with a roll of her eyes. She sighed again. "'Tis a sad day when a mother cannot spend five minutes with her son-whom she hasn't seen in an eternity, mind you."

"I promise hours of unexpurgated time alone over tea," Jeremy said. "After I see what Father wants."

"He's in the study with Allam," his mother replied with a wave of her hand. "Neither of them has said a word to me about this matter. But you know how those brothers can be. Silent as wolves."

"Wolves howl, Mother."

"Mute wolves, then." She shooed him off. "Go on, then. See what he wants. The sooner you get that out of the way, the sooner we can talk. About finding you a wife, specifically."

Jeremy fought the urge to roll his eyes. Marriage always beckoned. Wives were crucial for vicars, helping with the duties of the parish, but his needs and desires also burned with an unseemly heat. Nightly, he prayed to withstand the fires of his own body's demands. He'd banked them for so long that they threatened to burn him from the inside out. As the son of the highly moral Earl of Hutton, Jeremy couldn't avail himself of actresses and demimondaines. And vicars certainly didn't. Which left him a seething, simmering volcano of need.

How likely would it be that he'd find a good, sweet, patient woman with a siren's sexual appetite? Not likely at all.

Loneliness had made itself too common in his life. Its constant emptiness was a hunger that could never be satisfied.

None of this would he tell his mother, of course. They might be close, but they weren't that close.

"This way, please," the butler intoned.

"I know the way to the study, Jeffries," he answered with a smile.

The servant bowed. "As you wish, Master Jeremy."

With a last kiss for his mother, he headed toward the study.

An uneasy energy pulsed along Jeremy's neck as he contemplated what, exactly, necessitated the presence of his uncle, the Marquess of Allam. Perhaps it had to do with Allam's son, Cameron, Viscount Marwood. Recently, Marwood had married-a commoner who was also a playwright, of all things. Allam couldn't be happy about that.

Reaching the door to the study, Jeremy tapped lightly. His father's voice called out for him to enter.

Jeremy took a deep breath. Being called before his father had never been a pleasant experience as a boy, and little had changed. Dread pooled coldly in his belly.

He stepped inside.

The room was paneled in dark wood, full of books and gravitas. An acre of desk occupied one corner; his uncle sat in front of it. His father stood behind the desk, a slim book in his hands.

Lord Hutton strode forward as Allam rose. Jeremy took turns shaking their hands and murmuring greetings. The two brothers held themselves with the same proud, upright bearing, and both wore their age remarkably well.

Jeremy did indeed feel as though he gazed at himself through the lens of time whenever he looked at his father. They both had the same long faces, the same bright blue eyes. Even, God help them, the same curly blond hair. Yet for some reason, women found their hair extremely charming, so Jeremy had little cause for complaint. Still, where Jeremy saw curiosity and openness in his own eyes, his father's were much harder, more demanding.

He couldn't help but feel that his father was sizing him up, taking his measure. The earl bragged to many about having a son in the Church-his virtuous son, the future archbishop. His father's scrutiny reminded Jeremy that he needed to remain constantly vigilant, lest his halo slip or tarnish.

"Had a good journey, I hope?" his father asked.

"Passable roads," Jeremy answered, "made all the better by the services of your carriage."

Lord Hutton nodded, though the excellence of his vehicles was never in doubt.

"Good to see you, my boy," Allam said jovially, thumping Jeremy on his back.

At twenty-eight, Jeremy could hardly be called a boy anymore, but he accepted his uncle's compliments and returned them with his own. Genuine pleasure lit within him to see the older man again. "It's been too long," he said. Marwood's w