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Authors: Jo Beverley

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BOOK: An Unlikely Countess
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But she grasped her candle and hurried out, closing the door behind her.
Damn her for a proud, imperious queen, but it was better so. He needed no more trouble in his life.
He pinched out the precious candle, doing his best to pinch out all tender feelings at the same time. A budding Boadicea was no business of his.
Chapter 2
P
rudence Youlgrave extinguished the candle to save it, but then sat on the edge of her bed for a long time. All the pain and fury of her brother’s betrayal still roiled in her, but on top flowed the soothing sweetness of that kiss.
It had meant nothing. She knew that and didn’t wish it otherwise, but it soothed like ointment on a burn. Perhaps the magic came from its being her first kiss, or even from the brandy. If so, she could become addicted.
Perhaps the true magic had been the embrace. Such a feeling of being safe, of warmth within strong arms and a tender hand stroking her.
Her mother had held her tenderly when she’d been a child, but that had ended as she’d grown older. Unhappily, she remembered, at about the time they’d been exiled from paradise. Mother had embraced a positive attitude like a weapon. Perhaps hugs would have weakened her.
In the last months of her mother’s life, in nursing her, any tenderness, any protectiveness had been for her to give. In the four months since, she’d relished her independence. She’d lived her days completely as she wished, at no one’s beck and call, free to read and to take country walks as she passed the time before joining Aaron in Darlington.
Now she had to face the truth. She wasn’t independent at all. She was very dependent on Aaron’s three guineas a month. Without that she’d be in the workhouse—if she were lucky. They didn’t harbor the healthy, so either they’d find her menial work or she’d be on the streets, surviving the only way women did in that situation.
Aaron would never let it come to that, but then, she’d never imagined he could refuse her direct appeal.
She had to press her eyes to stop tears.
Only brandy tears. She’d probably wake in a bad state as payment, but she couldn’t regret the comfort it had brought. Or the scandalous contact she’d petitioned from that man.
She hadn’t realized how sensitive her lips could be, that they could tingle like that. She’d not expected the effect when her lips had parted a little, when they’d breathed together. When something—something tightly coiled inside her—had stirred in a most disturbing way.
She’d wanted to press closer then, to try to kiss more deeply. Thank heavens he’d stopped. But then he’d drawn her into his arms. Oh, it was heaven to feel so safe and secure for the first time in ten years. Perhaps, in that particular way, for the first time in her life.
“A foolish illusion,” she muttered, shocking herself out of madness with sound. Impoverished, drunken Catesby Burgoyne was no source of security.
That embrace, however, was a reminder of her purpose.
She would have a husband. That was her right, the unspoken debt that Aaron owed her. She would be a married woman, with a respectable position in decent society, a home to manage, and children to cherish.
And a man to protect her, kiss her, love her, and embrace her. A sensible, worthy man, she reminded herself as she undressed down to her shift and got into bed. Not a drunken adventurer. A solicitor like Aaron. A doctor or clergyman. She might not mind a merchant of the more respectable sort.
A gentleman of the gentry, with a country property? A country property like the one in which she’d once lived . . .
No, she would not be a foolish dreamer. Those days were gone. A decent gentleman of Darlington would suit her very well.
 
She woke to sunlight shooting through the ill-fitting shutters. Awoke to awareness of complete folly. She’d let a man into the house. Let him
stay
in the house overnight! She must have been brandy-mad to do that.
And to do the other.
She touched her lips as if they might be different, but then rushed into her simple clothes and peered out. The door of the other bedchamber stood open and the room was empty. A pang of sadness brought the sting of tears.
Idiot!
The question was, what had he stolen? Or was stealing now—she heard a noise below.
She crept downstairs armed with only her wooden candlestick, but there was no sign of the dangerous Mr. Burgoyne. Only Toby, wagging his tail.
Rather than stealing, her scandalous guest had added to the two silver shillings that lay on the table. She picked up the silver tiepin, turning it in the sunlight. The head was formed like a tiny dagger.
She studied it as if it could reveal something about him, but if it did, it was only that he enjoyed violence. She should be angry that he’d left it when she’d declined his charity, but she closed her hand more tightly around it—almost as if it were a loving gift.
A rascal and probably a gamester to be in such straits, but . . . at the awareness he was gone, never to be seen again, something pressed inside her that was almost like pain.
Cate Burgoyne.
A ne’er-do-well, but so tall and strong. So fearless and quick with his sword. The memory of him racing to the attack still made her breathless. So handsome.
What created that quality, handsome? Clean-cut features, a firm mouth, lean cheeks—but it was more than that. It was the whole of him, including the confidence in every line.
He claimed to be short of money, but he wasn’t accustomed to poverty. His clothing was finely made and in a good state, including a neckcloth trimmed with expensive lace. She knew the value of lace, having slowly sold all they had. He could probably pay his way to London in luxury by selling his bits and pieces and didn’t know it.
She shook away all thought of him, put the shillings in her pocket, and hid the pin in the back of a drawer. Then she built a small fire in the hearth to boil the kettle. After some bread and a cup of dandelion tea, she took out one of her last sheets of writing paper, trimmed the pen, and sat to compose exactly the right letter to Aaron.
She’d completed only one careful sentence when Hetty Larn came in through the back door. “Here’s yer bread, Miss Youlgrave.”
Prudence put her letter aside. “Thank you, Hetty.”
“It’s no trouble, miss.”
Hetty was slim and homely, but had a brightness about her that astonished Prudence. How could anyone be bright when living in the poverty of White Rose Yard? Perhaps Aaron saw it as draped with roses, even in March, but the name came from the property on the High Street whose land this was.
The tavern called the White Rose.
Hetty lived next door with her husband, Will, and her two young children, who were grinning from against their mother’s skirts. Toby trotted over, tail wagging. Giggling, the children knelt to play with him.
Prudence’s mother had had a kind heart, but even so, wherever they’d lived, she’d insisted on keeping a distance between them and their lower-born neighbors. On her own, Prudence had been unable to be discourteous. This row of cottages in White Rose Yard all backed onto a narrow common area where some grew vegetables or kept chickens, and everyone hung out washing. Front and back doors stood open in fair weather, and neighbors came and went.
The day after Prudence had moved in, Hetty Larn had knocked at the front door. Prudence had learned that was appropriate for a first visit. There was etiquette, even in White Rose Yard.
Hetty had offered a small pile of fresh haverbread, the oat pancakes eaten by the poor here more often than wheat bread. Prudence had been taken aback, but she’d known it was kindly meant, so she’d accepted the gift with thanks.
From there she’d slid—downhill, her mother would say—into familiarity. It was a kind of business arrangement, however. Hetty baked extra haverbread for her, and Prudence looked after her children for an hour or so now and then.
She’d found children a surprising amount of work and had come up with the idea of teaching them their letters to keep them out of mischief. To her surprise, they enjoyed it, and the boy, Willie, was quick and clever. Hetty was over the moon.
Prudence took down the package of teaching materials she’d made, and the children ran over to scramble up onto two stools at the table.
“It’s good of ye to teach ’em, miss.”
“It’s good of you to bake for me, Hetty. I’ve never quite found the way of it.”
“ ’Tis easy enough. I could teach ye.”
Prudence smiled, but it covered a spurt of outrage. She’d never need to know how to make haverbread, or any sort of bread. She was destined for better things.
“I could teach you to read, Hetty.”
“Me! Lawks, miss, there’s no point in that. But there’s likely other parents here who’d be happy for ye to teach their little ’uns.”
“Set up a
school
?”
Hetty stared, as well she might when she had to know Prudence’s poverty. But to set up a school would be even worse than becoming a governess. It would confirm eternal, scrimping spinsterhood. It would be defeat.
“I don’t expect to be here much longer,” Prudence said. “Now that the first part of my mourning is over, I’ll soon be moving to live with my brother in Darlington.”
“Oh, that’s a shame, miss.”
Prudence bit back a response and turned to the table, where she unfolded the package to reveal the alphabet. Each square of paper held a letter and a little picture. There were other pieces of paper with words on them.
She gave each child a word. “Now find the letters that make up the word, dears.” She put a brown pottery dish in front of each child, sprinkled it with flour, and put a pen-size stick beside it. “When you’ve made your word, try to write it in the flour.”
Willie immediately took the stick and carefully formed “cat.”
Hetty looked on adoringly. “Such a treat t’see them making letters, miss.”
“They’re both clever children.” In fact little Sarah showed no great signs of cleverness, but Willie was clearly capable of achievement if he’d been born into another station in life.
“Oh, I meant to ask,” Hetty said. “Are y’all right after last night?”
Prudence froze and turned slowly to face the other woman. “What do you mean?”
“We ’eard old Mr. Brown calling for sum’un to stop what they were doing. Will looked out, but there was no one to be seen. But this morning old Brown said as ’e were sure people ’ad been lurking in the shadows outside our ’ouse and whispering as if up to no good.”
“Truly?” Prudence said, eyes as wide as she could make them. “Has anyone’s house been broken into?”
“Not so far as I know, miss, and I’m glad you weren’t disturbed. Well, I’ll be off. Some jobs are so much easier without little ’uns around. You be good, young Willie and Sarie!”
She left and Prudence blew out a breath. She’d been slow in writing her letter because her mind had wandered so often to dashing Cate Burgoyne, but he’d been part of her insanity. Last night could so easily have left her with a tarnished reputation, which would have meant the ruination of all her hopes.
She sat down with the children, resolved to think no more of him. She’d finish her letter and send it off. Aaron would see the justice of her complaints and invite her to live with him in Darlington after his marriage. There, she would be able to find a suitable husband.
A good, worthy man of her own station, not a highborn wastrel like Cate Burgoyne.
 
Two weeks after she’d sent her letter, Prudence accepted that her brother was ignoring it.
Now she couldn’t see why she’d thought he’d do otherwise. He’d always been able to put inconvenient obligations out of mind. The number of times she’d had to nag him into doing his schoolwork!
She’d never imagined that he could ignore her plight, however.
When he’d attended their mother’s funeral, he’d been disparaging about their little house on Romanby Court, as if its limitations had been their fault. When he’d made a similar remark about the furniture, she’d told him directly that the better pieces had been sold to pay the doctor’s fees.
His response? That she should have managed better.
Prudence knew now she should have demanded more at the time, but she was accustomed to “investing in his profession,” as their mother had put it, and she’d been sure it would be for only a little while. . ..
She’d moved to White Rose Yard—the cheapest place she could find—to wait out the earliest months of mourning and the final months of Aaron’s training. She’d been careless with money until recently, when Aaron’s silence had begun to worry her.
Toby, always sensitive to trouble, whined, looking up at her so sadly, so fearfully. She didn’t know if he’d been timid before the accident that had taken his leg, for that was when she’d given him a home, but he now seemed always to fear the worst. She would
not
be a Toby. She’d write again. Aaron had always needed things put straight to him. She took down the writing materials, but Toby whined again, eyes pitying.
“You’re right. What point in repeating myself?”
But where did that leave her? Scraping by in White Rose Yard on a guinea a month, or setting up a dame school, where she’d teach the rudiments of letters and numbers in her home and be paid in eggs, bread, and cabbages.
“Y’all right, miss?” Hetty asked cheerfully, in the universal local greeting.
Prudence brushed away tears. “What are you doing here, Hetty?”
Hetty flinched at the sharp tone. “I just popped in with some extra greens from me dad.” She was holding a big spring cabbage.
Prudence almost snapped something about charity cabbage, but manners stopped her, and after that, common sense. She needed charity.
“I’m sorry, Hetty. I was just . . . upset. Thank you. You’re very kind.”
“It’s not much, miss. Growing well this spring, the greens.” She cocked her head. “I don’t mean to intrude, miss, but is there anything I can do to help?”
BOOK: An Unlikely Countess
2.72Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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