Alfie Kimbrell lowered his straight razor with a muttered curse as the house vibrated beneath the rumble of cloven hooves. His youngest brothers weren’t truly sheep, of course, or cattle for that matter, for all that their manners resembled the beasts as they charged down the stairs. When the din faded, he cautiously lifted the razor to his neck once more.
One would have thought rising at such an unholy hour would have been sufficient to gain an early place at the breakfast table. One would have been wrong, and Alfie would count himself fortunate to find a single sausage left in the pan.
“Your shoes are shined,” Ben began with a furrowed brow. “You’ve laid out your best coat and… didn’t you shave your whiskers yesterday?”
Alfie eyed the eldest of his brothers in the mirror as he scraped the blade over his skin. At five and twenty, Ben was two years his junior and, Alfie reflected, oddly calm about missing his breakfast.
“Aye,” he responded, “but lo and behold, they’ve grown again.”
“So, who’s captured your interest this time?” Ben asked as he reclined on the bed. Alfie stretched his upper lip and applied the blade to it, and his brother continued into the silence.
“Let’s see,” he said, turning his gaze to the ceiling. “You’ve already loved and lost Miss Steward—”
Alfie lowered the razor to frown. “I was fifteen.”
“Aye, and she must have been, what, eighteen? You’ve always had a preference for the older ladies, so ’tis no wonder you didn’t make a go of it with Miss Carew, either. And then there was the unfortunate business with the Stanton sisters last spring. ’Tis impressive, brother, when one considers it: you’ve managed to love nearly all the eligible ladies in our small hamlet.”
“All” was not so great a number as it sounded, but his brother was correct. Alfie had shared a flirtation with the ladies, although he’d never go so far as Ben and call it love. Merely a dance or two at the monthly assemblies. Perhaps—definitely—a stolen kiss here and there. He wasn’t one to challenge the direction of the wind, especially when it blew a pretty female his way.
But while each lady had had her own delightful charms, something had been lacking, and he’d been quick to turn his attentions elsewhere before expectations grew past the point of managing.
He eyed his brother’s reflection and said only, “’Taint such a feat. You know as well as I that the number of ladies in Newford is woefully small.”
“Aye, but you don’t leave any for the rest of us.”
“Ladies are not the same as sausages.” Alfie was aware but uncaring that his thoughts were firmly fixed on the breakfast he was missing. “And besides, our cousins should be receiving your censure, not me. First Jory earning Miss Pepper’s hand, and now Gryffyn fixing Miss Moon’s affections...”
None of them had been more surprised than he when their cousin Gryffyn—the most reserved of them all—had done the impossible. He’d secured the un-securable Miss Moon. But Gryffyn had gone about the matter as he did all things—with such quiet diligence that one didn’t know the thing was done until it was, well, done.
“To be honest, all of us were betting on you to turn your attentions to Miss Moon,” Ben said. “Which still leaves my initial question unanswered. Who’s the lady this time?”
Alfie rinsed then examined his jaw in the mirror. Satisfied, he took up a linen towel to dry his face while Ben waited expectantly.
With a sigh for brotherly persistence, he said, “The vicar’s niece was expected on yesterday’s stage. I overheard Mrs. Pentreath say to Mrs. Clifton some weeks agone that she’s a pleasant thing and quite unattached.”
Pleasant and unattached. A rare combination for the females of Newford. The former was not so hard to find as the latter, but the rare combination was a heady thought indeed.
Ben crossed his arms behind his head and studied the ceiling once more. Smiling, he said, “The vicar’s niece, you say?”
“Aye.” Then, because he recognized Ben’s smile for a smirk, Alfie asked, “Have you seen her then?”
Ben nodded. “I passed the Feather when the vicar met her coach there last evening.”
The smirk remained and Alfie frowned. “And? Is she as Mrs. Pentreath says?”
Ben pressed his lips in thought as Alfie stared impatiently. Finally, his brother said, “Aye, she’s a fetching miss, to be sure. And, I would wager, quite unattached as you’ve heard.”
Slightly mollified, Alfie pulled his braces onto his shoulders. “Kindly remove your boots before you muddy the bed.”
Ben eyed him for a beat before saying, “’Twill be mine soon enough.”
Alfie snorted. His brothers couldn’t wait for him to go, not that he blamed them. The house was comfortable enough for four or five, but they were nine in total, counting his father. And at fourteen, the twins were fast taking up more than their proper share of the space.
“When did you say you’re removing to Penhollow?” Ben asked.
“I didn’t.” The property Alfie had acquired in the hills above Newford wasn’t fit for the mice that inhabited it, much less a man. Alfie must suffer his brothers for some time to come, cloven feet and all.
He shoved Ben’s boots aside as he sat on the end of the bed and pulled on his own shoes. He’d have worn boots as well, but he wished to make a fitty impression on the niece. It had been more than a decade since he’d enjoyed his mother’s guidance, but he could hear her voice clear as bells urging him to leave off the dust of his boots and make a proper greeting. A lady deserved no less.
Although he had no reason to think it, he imagined the vicar’s niece to be a petite Cornish rose with pale, creamy skin, the hint of a blush and bright locks. A ready smile that belied a spirit as prone to kindness as to humor and a voice that was pleasant on the ears.
She probably had a liking for novels and romantic poetry as well as a number of feminine pursuits at which she excelled, such as embroidery or watercolors. The lady of his imagination was not the sort to appreciate rough whiskers or boots in church.
He opened his mouth to ask his brother for more details of her arrival then closed it with a snap. He didn’t wish to dampen the anticipation of their first meeting with what was sure to be an incomplete, if not irreverent, accounting from his brother.
As he tucked the ends of his neckcloth, Ben reached into his own coat and withdrew a linen-wrapped bundle. He unfolded it to reveal two pasties, and Alfie’s mouth watered. He regretted every unkind thought he’d ever had for his brother and reached for one of the flaky handhelds.
Ben lifted it beyond his reach with a wagging finger. “Only if you and the vicar’s niece promise to name your first born after me.”
Alfie climbed over Ben to snatch the pasty, enjoying his brother’s low grunt of pain as Alfie’s elbow found a rib.
Alfie tossed the reins to one of the ostlers at The Fin and Feather Inn as his brothers climbed from the back of the cart. The day was a fine one, with a crisp snap to the late autumn air and a vivid blue sky that met the darker hue of the sea beyond their small harbor. The day was full of promise, ready for reaping.
His father strode ahead, intent on checking a newly poured order of ships’ bells in his foundry while Alfie and his brothers continued to the parish church at the end of the high street.
They were early by the market clock, but a sizable crowd had already gathered before the church’s tower entrance. Their vicar’s sermons were thoughtful but rarely so anticipated, so Alfie was left to assume he hadn’t been the only one to have overheard Mrs. Pentreath.
He cupped a hand beneath his nose and exhaled, certain the lady must appreciate sweet breath as much as any gentleman. Not that he’d be so very close—they would meet at the church doors in full view of the entire town, after all—but it never hurt to be prepared. Perhaps he could persuade her to walk with him after the service, at least to the vicarage.
Satisfied with the success of his cinnamon tooth powder, he marched on, ignoring the perpetual antics and jostling of his brothers behind him. They could be such children at times, with little appreciation for the weight of life’s significant moments.
As they neared the crowd, he craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the vicar and his visiting relation but was unsuccessful. Alfie was a man of greater than average height, but many of his cousins had arrived as well to form a wall of Kimbrells he was unable to see past. Merryn and Gavin joined him near the lychgate and together they moved toward the front of the crowd.
“What’s the to-do, d’you suppose?” Merryn asked.
“The vicar’s niece has come for a visit,” Alfie explained as he straightened his cuffs.
“Aye,” Gavin said, “I encountered her coach last night when it arrived at the Feather. But I’m not certain why all of Newford has turned out so early. Vicar’s sermon last week on the advantages of marriage was well ordered but hardly one to warrant such eagerness.” A crease marked his brow as he twisted his head one way then the other to survey the crowd.
Alfie was normally prone to woolgathering during their vicar’s sermons, but he’d been especially captured by the man’s words last week. Let us consider the advantages which a man derives from a good wife. She will help to educate his children, to improve his lot, to share his joys and ease his sorrows....
That last bit about joys and sorrows had him leaning forward in the pew as the vicar had gone on about burdens and softness and light. Alfie had considered his newly betokened cousins and their newfound bliss and knew a sudden yearning for something softer in his own life than a houseful of men. Something more enduring than a week or two of flirting.
And now the vicar’s unattached niece had come to Newford. Why, ’twas almost as if his mother had rallied the angels in Heaven to his cause.
“I wonder if I should have worn my grey coat instead of the brown,” he said.
Gavin’s brows knitted together in a sharp V then, tugging his ear, he said. “Alfie, you don’t think—”
Alfie didn’t hear the rest of his cousin’s words as the crowd thinned near the church entrance and he got his first eyeful of the vicar’s lovely niece.
His breath stopped in his chest and he slowed his steps. She was indeed a fine and delicate miss with burnished locks and skin that glowed beneath a rosy blush. A ready smile curved her lips, declaring her a lady of uncommon good humor.
But beyond these fine attributes, the niece had the distinction of being rather... short. Exceptionally short. Alfie supposed that must be due to her tender years, as she couldn’t have been more than eight. Quite unattached, indeed.
His lips curved in a tight smile as the vicar introduced his sister’s youngest, Miss Althea, and her governess. Alfie—ever the optimist—perked a bit at that, until he peered beyond the vicar’s shoulder to see a dour-featured woman with stout arms. Not that he had a problem with that per se—he enjoyed all ladies—but the governess didn’t look as if she enjoyed much of anything.
He sighed. Ben caught his eye as he entered the church and mouthed, First. Born.