The picturesque village of Trellick, nestled in a river valley in Somersetshire, was usually a quiet little backwater. But not on this particular day. By the middle of the afternoon it appeared that every villager and every country dweller for miles around must be out-of-doors, milling about the village green, enjoying the revelries.
The maypole at the center of the green, its colored ribbons fluttering in the breeze, proclaimed the occasion. It was May Day. Later, the young men would dance about the maypole with the partners of their choice, as they did with great energy and enthusiasm every year.
Meanwhile, there were races and other contests to draw attention to the green. Pitched about its perimeter were tented booths with their offerings of appetizing foods, eye-catching baubles, and challenging games of skill or strength or chance.
The weather had cooperated in magnificent fashion with warm sunshine and a cloudless blue sky. Women and girls had discarded shawls and pelisses they had worn in the morning. A few men and most boys remained in their shirtsleeves after engaging in one of the more strenuous contests. Tables and chairs had been carried from the church hall onto the lawn outside so that tea and cakes could be served in full view of all the merriment. Not to be outdone, on an adjacent side of the village green the Boar's Head had its own tables and benches set up outside for the convenience of those folk who preferred ale to tea.
A few strangers, on their way past the village to destinations unknown, stopped off for varying periods of time to observe the fun and even in some cases to participate in it before continuing their journeys.
One such stranger was riding slowly down toward the green from the main road when Viola Thornhill glanced up from serving tea to the Misses Merrywether. She would not have seen him over the heads of the crowd if he had not been on horseback. As it was, she paused for a second, more leisurely look.
He was clearly a gentleman, and a fashionable one at that. His dark blue riding coat looked as if it might have been molded to his frame. His linen beneath it was white and crisp. His black leather breeches clung to his long legs like a second skin. His riding boots looked supple and must surely have been made by the very best of boot makers. But it was not so much the clothes as the man inside them who attracted and held Viola's appreciative attention. He was young and slim and darkly handsome. He pushed back his tall hat even as she watched. He was smiling.
"You ought not to be serving us, Miss Thornhill," Miss Prudence Merrywether said, a customary note of anxious apology in her voice. "We ought to be serving you. You have been rushed off your feet all day."
Viola reassured her with a warm smile. "But I am having so much fun," she said. "Are we not fortunate indeed that the weather has been so kind?"
When she looked again, the stranger had disappeared from view, though he had not ridden on his way. His horse was being led away by one of the lads who worked in the inn stables.
"Miss Vi," a familiar voice said from behind her, and she turned to smile at the small, plump woman who had touched her on the shoulder. "The sack race is ready to begin, and you are needed to start it and award the prizes. I'll take the teapot from you."
"Will you, Hannah?" Viola handed it over and hurried onto the green, where a number of children were indeed wriggling into sacks and clutching them to their waists. Viola helped the stragglers and then directed them all as they hopped and shuffled into a roughly even line along the appointed starting point. Adults crowded about the four sides of the green to watch and cheer.
Viola had set out from home early in the morning looking ladylike and elegant in a muslin dress and shawl and straw bonnet, her hair in a neatly braided coronet about her head beneath it. She had even been wearing gloves. But she had long ago discarded all the accessories. Even her hair, slipping stubbornly out of its pins during the busy morning of rushing hither and yon, had been allowed finally to hang loose in a long braid down her back. She was feeling flushed and happy. She could not remember when she had enjoyed herself more.
"Get ready," she called, stepping to one side of the line of children. "Go!"
More than half the racers collapsed at their very first leap, their legs and feet all tangled up in sacking. They struggled to rise, to the accompaniment of good-natured laughter and shouted encouragement from relatives and neighbors. But inevitably there was one child who hopped across the green like a grasshopper and crossed the finish line before some of her less fortunate fellow contestants had recovered from their tumble.
Viola, laughing merrily, suddenly found herself locking eyes with the dark, handsome stranger, who was standing at the finish line, his own laughter emphasizing his extraordinary good looks. He looked her over frankly from head to toe before she turned away, but she discovered with pleased surprise that she felt amused, even exhilarated by his appreciation rather than repelled. She hurried forward to give out the prizes.
It was time then to hasten into the inn, where she was to judge the pie-baking contest with the Reverend Prewitt and Mr. Thomas Claypole.
"Eating pie is thirsty work," the vicar declared more than half an hour later, chuckling and patting his stomach after they had sampled every pie and declared a winner. "And if my observations have been correct, you have not had a break all day, Miss Thornhill. You go over to the church lawn now and find a table in the shade. Mrs. Prewitt or one of the other ladies will pour you tea. Mr. Claypole will be pleased to escort you, will you not, sir?"
Viola could have done without the escort of Mr. Claypole, who because he had proposed marriage to her at least a dozen times during the past year appeared to believe that he had some claim on her and the right to speak plainly to her on any number of issues. The best that could be said of Thomas Claypole was that he was worthy--a solid citizen, a prudent manager of his property, a dutiful son.
He was dull company at best. Irritating company at worst.
"Forgive me, Miss Thornhill," he began as soon as they were seated at one of the tables beneath the shade of a huge old oak tree and Hannah had poured their tea. "But you will not mind plain speaking from a friend, I daresay. Indeed, I flatter myself that I am more than a friend."
"What criticism of a perfect day do you have, then, sir?" she asked, setting her elbow on the table and her chin in her hand.
"Your willingness to organize the fete with the vicar's committee and to work hard to see that it runs smoothly is admirable indeed," he began, while Viola's eyes and attention drifted to the stranger, whom she could see drinking ale at a table outside the inn. "It can do nothing but earn my highest esteem. However, I have been somewhat alarmed to discover that today you look almost indistinguishable from any country wench."
"Oh, do I?" Viola laughed. "What a delightful thing to say. But you did not mean it as a compliment, did you?"
"You are hatless and your hair is down," he pointed out. "You have daisies in it."
She had forgotten. One of the children had presented her with a bunch gathered from the riverbank earlier in the day, and she had pushed the stems into her hair above her left ear. She touched the flowers lightly. Yes, they were still there.
"I believe it is your straw bonnet that is lying on the back pew of the church," Mr. Claypole continued.
"Ah," she said, "so that is where I left it, is it?"
"It should be protecting your complexion from the harmful rays of the sun," he said with gentle reproof.
"So it should," she agreed, finishing her tea and getting to her feet. "If you will excuse me, sir, I see that the fortune-teller is setting up her booth at last. I must go and see that she has everything she needs."
But Mr. Claypole would not have recognized a dismissal if it had doubled up into a fist and collided with his nose. He rose too, bowed, and offered his arm. Viola took it with an inward sigh of resignation.
Actually, the fortune-teller was already doing a brisk business, as Viola had been able to see from across the green. What she had also noticed, though, was that the stranger had strolled over to the throwing booth, which had been popular with the young men earlier in the afternoon. He was talking with Jake Tulliver, the blacksmith, when Viola and Mr. Claypole drew near.
"I was about to close down the booth, seeing as how we have run out of prizes," Jake said, raising his voice to address her. "But this gentleman wants a try."
"Well, then," she said gaily, "we will have to hope he does not win, will we not?"
The stranger turned his head to look at her. He was indeed tall, almost a full head taller than she. His eyes were almost black. They gave his handsome face a somewhat dangerous look. Viola felt her heartbeat quicken.
"Oh," he said with quiet assurance, "I will win, ma'am."
"Will you?" she asked. "Well, there is nothing so very surprising about that. Everyone else has won too, almost without exception. Hence the embarrassing lack of prizes still to give away. I daresay the targets were set too close. We must remember that next year, Mr. Tulliver."
"Set them back twice as far," the stranger said, "and I will still win."
She raised her eyebrows at the boast and looked at the metal candlesticks--the old set from the church vestry--which had been toppling all too readily before the ball the contestants had been hurling at them.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Very well, then, sir, prove it. If you win--four out of the five must fall with just five throws, you understand--then we will return your money. It is the best we can do. All of today's proceeds go to the vicar's charities, you see, so we cannot afford to offer cash prizes."
"I will pay twice the entry fee," the stranger said with a grin that made him look both reckless and boyish. "And I will knock all five candlesticks down at twice their present distance. But I must insist upon a prize, ma'am."
"I believe we might safely offer the church spire without fear of denuding the church," she said. "It cannot be done."
"Oh, it can and will," he assured her, "if the prize is to be those daisies you wear above your ear."
Viola touched them and laughed. "A valuable prize indeed," she said. "Very well, sir."
Mr. Claypole cleared his throat. "You will permit me to point out that wagers are inappropriate to what is essentially a church fete, sir," he said.
The stranger laughed into Viola's eyes, almost as if he believed it was she who had spoken.
"Let us make sure that the church benefits well from this wager, then," he said. "Twenty pounds for the church whether I win or lose. The lady's daisies for me if I win. Move back the targets," he instructed Jake Tulliver, while he set a few banknotes down on the booth counter.
"Miss Thornhill." Mr. Claypole had taken her by the elbow and was speaking earnestly into her ear. "This will not do. You are drawing attention to yourself."
She looked about to see that indeed people who had been awaiting their turn outside the fortune-teller's booth and had overheard the exchange were beginning to gather around. And their interest was attracting more. A number of people were hurrying across the green toward the throwing booth. The gentleman was removing his coat and rolling up his shirtsleeves. Jake was repositioning the candlesticks.
"This gentleman has donated twenty pounds to the vicar's fund," Viola called gaily to the gathering crowd. "If he knocks down all five candlesticks with five throws of the ball, he will win . . . my daisies."
She gestured toward them and laughed with the crowd. But the stranger, she saw, did not. He was rolling the ball in his hands, concentrating on it, and squinting ahead to the candlesticks, which now looked an impossible distance away. He could not possibly win. She doubted he could knock over even one.
But one toppled over even as she was thinking it, and the crowd applauded appreciatively.
Jake handed the stranger the ball again, and he concentrated on it as before. A hush fell on the gathered crowd, which had swelled even more in size.
A second candlestick teetered, looked as if it were about to right itself, and fell with a clatter.
At least, Viola thought, he had not totally humiliated himself. He looked more than handsome in his shirtsleeves. He looked . . . well, very male. She desperately wanted him to win his bet. But he had set himself a nearly impossible task.
Again he concentrated.
The third candlestick fell.
The fourth did not.
There was a collective moan from the crowd. Viola felt absurdly disappointed.
"It would seem, sir," she said, "that I get to keep my flowers."
"Not so hasty, ma'am." His grin was back and he held out his hand for the ball. "The wager was for five candlesticks down with five throws, was it not? Did it state that one had to go down with each throw?"
"No." She laughed when she understood his meaning. "But you have only one throw left, and two candlesticks are standing."
"Oh ye of little faith," he murmured with a wink, and Viola felt a pleased fluttering of awareness low in her abdomen.
Then he was concentrating again, and the crowd was being shushed by those who realized he had not yet admitted defeat, and Viola's heart was beating right up into her ears.
Her eyes widened with incredulity and the crowd erupted into a roar of wild cheering as the ball hit one upright candlestick, glanced sideways off it as it fell, and demolished the fifth with a satisfying crack.
The gentleman turned, bowed to his audience, and then grinned at Viola, who was clapping and laughing and realizing that this was by far the most exhilarating moment of the day.
"That bouquet is forfeit, I believe, ma'am," he said, pointing to her daisies. "I will claim them for myself."
Excerpted from No Man's Mistress by Mary Balogh. Copyright © 2002 by Mary Balogh. Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.