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Authors: Jo Beverley

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BOOK: An Unlikely Countess
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Prudence deflected. “Where are the children?”
“Me mother came with the greens. She’s ’appy to look after them. Have you had bad news?”
Prudence wanted to say no, to smile, to protect her pride, but the truth burst out. “I’ve had
no
news. My brother is ignoring me.”
“Yer brother? The one in Darlington?”
“He’s a solicitor.”
Prudence had said it with defensive pride, but instantly saw her mistake.
Hetty’s jaw dropped. “Why’re ye living ’ere, then?”
Prudence wanted to pour out her grievances, but pride, burdensome pride, made her say, “He doesn’t have room at the moment. He’s to marry and then he’ll have a house provided by his father-in-law.”
“Still an’ all, ye should be living better than this.”
“It’s costly to set up as a lawyer.”
“I suppose that’s likely, miss. But he’s to marry, you say. All’ll be right then. He and his wife’ll welcome you there, especially when there’re little ’uns.”
“You mean they’ll want an unpaid nursery nurse.”
“Family to ’elp out and be company,” Hetty explained.
“Would you?” Prudence asked.
“Have one of me sisters living with us? Or Will’s sister? It’d be company, wouldn’t it, whilst Will’s at work, and a sharing of the tasks. But they’re all settled on their own—all but little Jessie, who’s a maid over at the ’all.”
Impossible to explain that life for Prudence in her brother’s house would not be such a cheerful blending. She’d be happy to be company for his bride, a Miss Susan Tallbridge, but not to be a poor relation, destined to be grateful and to prove it by taking on any task given her.
“When’s the wedding, then?” Hetty asked.
Another startling question. Prudence had no idea. “Soon,” she said, but with growing excitement.
The wedding! Why hadn’t she thought of that? Aaron would have to send her the money to travel to the wedding and to buy new clothes so she wouldn’t shame him. The wedding would correct everything. She’d mingle in the best Darlington society, for Aaron’s bride was the daughter of a well-to-do merchant.
Her lighter spirits made her sorry for being sharp earlier. “Will you call me Prudence, Hetty? And would you rather I call you Hesther?”
The young woman laughed. “Don’t ye go doing that, miss. I mean, Prudence. I’d not know who ye meant.”
She was blushing. Was it wrong to suggest such intimacy? “If you’d rather not . . .”
“Nay, I’m ’appy to be ’etty.” Then she giggled. “ ’appy to be ’etty!”
A wife, a mother of two, and still four years younger than Prudence’s twenty-six and able to giggle like a girl.
Hetty cocked her head. “Sorry if ye don’t like me mentioning this, Prudence, but yer ’ands are rough for a lady. Can I give you some of me cream?”
“Cream?”
“Mother makes it. Fleece oil and ’erbs, mostly. A bit smelly-like, but it softens rough skin right well.”
“You already give me enough for the little I do.”
“This is just friendly-like. If that’s not presuming too far.”
When it was put like that, Prudence couldn’t refuse, and she noticed that Hetty’s hands were in better condition than her own. Hetty did a great deal more rough work.
“No, of course not.”
Hetty beamed. “I’ll go and get ye some right now.”
When she’d gone, Prudence smiled with new hope.
The wedding. Her doorway to a better life. When she went to Darlington for that, there’d be no point in returning here. Her life would change overnight.
She’d need a new gown, more than one, but probably Aaron truly was still short of money.
As soon as Hetty brought the pot of cream and left again, Prudence went upstairs to take her one good gown out of the wooden chest where it lay carefully folded in muslin among herbs. She’d plunged all her other gowns into a black dye bath to provide mourning, but held this blue one back.
Her one good gown, but four years old.
She spread it on her bed and considered it. She’d worn it only for church and for Aaron’s rare visits, so it was fairly well preserved. The hem was worn, but if she turned it up just a little that would be hidden. She held it to the light of the small window. The cloth was faded from the bright blue it had once been, but perhaps that wouldn’t be obvious, and the muted color was more suitable for mourning. It would be less than six months since Mother’s death.
She should stay in black, but the blue gown was plain, and clearly Aaron thought their time of mourning was past. Could she even add some pretty trimming? Braid, beads, and ribbons were expensive, but if she bought thread, she could embroider the gown. Black and another shade of blue.
Even thread and good needles cost money, however.
She took out the shillings, considering them as if they were talismans. Then she nodded, put on her shawl, and went out to the shops.
 
Three weeks later, Prudence stormed out of her back door and in through the open one next door. It was the first time she’d entered Hetty’s house, and she would never have imagined doing so uninvited, but she had to speak to someone.
Hetty was on her knees attacking a big tub of some sort of laundry. She blinked up at Prudence and then began to rise.
“No, don’t . . .” Prudence said, but it was all wrong to have Hetty on her knees. “I mean, please, if you want. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have just barged in.”
Hetty was already standing, wiping her hands on her apron. “Course you should. The blankets can soak.”
“Blankets.”
“Nice warm, windy day. Good for the blankets’ annual wash. Is something up, luv?”
That was still new to Prudence, Hetty’s use of the casual “love.” It seemed to suck her deeper into White Rose Yard, but she’d been so sure she’d soon leave that it hadn’t mattered.
She sat on one of the stools at the plain table. There was only one chair and she knew that would be for Will, the man of the house. Men—the masters of all.
“My brother is married.”
Hetty looked at her blankly, but then gasped. “Without you there! Why would he do that?”
“Why would he not?” Prudence said bitterly.
“But you’ve been working so ’ard on that gown.”
Prudence wished she’d not come here, not revealed her hurt.
Hetty took down a couple of pottery beakers and a stoppered jug from which she poured.
“That’s not gin, is it?” Prudence asked, assailed by memories. Since that night, she’d drunk what remained of the brandy in guilty sips at her lowest moments.
“Gin?” Hetty exclaimed. “As if I would! It’s me mother’s cordial. It’ll raise yer spirits.” She sat down opposite Prudence, pushing one beaker over.
Prudence sniffed and smelled mostly herbs. She sipped and first tasted a sickly sweetness, but then she coughed. “Raise my spirits. It’s full of spirits!”
“Just Mother’s ’omemade wine. It’s the ’erbs that do you good, though.”
Prudence swallowed some more. “I’ll be a tosspot at this rate.”
“Go on with ye. Now, tell me wot’s wot. You ’ad a letter?”
Prudence took another drink. “From, would you believe it, my brother’s wife. Regretting that I was unable to attend, but desirous of relating all the delights of the day.”
“That’s good of ’er, then.”
“Good! It’s a taunt, pure and simple. Every detail of the fine company, the elegant wedding breakfast, her gown, Aaron’s new suit of clothes, their new home . . . All were pins aimed at my heart.”
“Oh.” Hetty sipped more of the cordial.
“It’s true. She’ll have been the one who said who could and could not be at her wedding. She must be the one who doesn’t want me in Darlington.”
“Yer brother could stand up to ’er if he wanted.”
“Maybe not. She brings a good sum of money, and her father’s influential in Darlington.”
“Still, your brother’s the man of the house.”
Prudence sighed. “Am I still making excuses for him? I’m being foolish all around, aren’t I?” She sipped some more of the sweet drink. “I’d pinned hopes on the wedding, you see. I would be a lady there and I’d meet his fine circle. I might even . . .”
She stopped her revelations, thank heavens, before admitting her dream of meeting a gentleman who admired her.
She frowned at her cup. “This is a powerful concoction.”
“Cures a cold nicely, and the rheumatics.”
And a broken heart?
Her heart wasn’t broken, however, only battered and bruised. It was her dreams that were shattered beyond repair, taking her hopes with them.
She cradled the cup and drank more. “I don’t want to live like this, Hetty.” She realized that could seem insulting. “I mean . . . it’s not the place or the people I mind, but I want more. I want . . .”
“A husband. Every woman does, and every man a wife. But I know it’s not easy for a lady like you. Ye can’t marry a simple man, but ye need money to marry a gentleman.”
“Did you bring money to your match?”
“I brought some linen and me new clothes. And I’m’ealthy and a good worker, as is Will. He knows ’is trade, and I know how to run a home and care for all in it.”
“I know how to run a home.”
“With servants,” Hetty said, without any apparent intent to insult.
“I run this house,” Prudence protested, but then thought of the bread she didn’t bake, the blankets she’d never washed, and the moth holes spreading in them. She did dust and scrub, but she didn’t make a hand cream, roast her own dandelions for a hot drink, or keep chickens.
“I do know how to run a house with servants,” she agreed. “When we lived at Blytheby Manor I helped run our part of it. I helped to care for the finer items, such as the best linen, the glass and china.”
All of which was gone. Except her mother’s favorite vase, and the two glasses out of which she’d drunk brandy with a rascally rake . . .
Hetty was staring at her, wide-eyed. She topped up their pottery cups. “You lived in a
manor
house?”
“What? Oh, Blytheby Manor. Yes, but not as you think. My father was the librarian there.”
“How the ’eck did you come to be ’ere? A manor house. Only think on it!”
Prudence did, too often. She thought of the suite of rooms in which her family had lived, and the estate on which she’d been free to wander. She remembered the feeling of belonging there, almost as if part of Sir Joshua Jenkin’s family, and her comfortable acquaintance with the daughters of nearby families. She’d seen herself as part of their society.
After all, though she’d not been born at Blytheby, she’d known no other home. Her parents had moved there when she was two years old. When Sir Joshua had gambled away his money and shot himself, and her family had had to leave Blytheby with only days’ notice, it had felt like being cast out of paradise.
She couldn’t bear to relive all that, however.
“How did I come to be here?” she asked. “A series of misfortunes.”
“How old were ye when this all ’appened?”
Disaster hadn’t been completed in an instant, but Prudence said, “Fifteen.”
Old enough to glimpse a happy future but not old enough to have embarked on the path. Sir Joshua had promised to hold a party for her when she reached sixteen. Not a ball, of course, but there would be dancing. He’d arranged dancing lessons for her. . ..
She drank some more cordial, swallowing some tears.
Hetty said, “It must be hard to live so grand and ’ave it all taken away. Easier to be where you’re born to.”
Prudence wasn’t convinced that being born to White Rose Yard was an enviable fate, but Hetty had a point. Prudence didn’t envy the great of the land—the dukes and earls with their mansions and vast estates. That wasn’t her place to be any more than Hetty’s would be Blytheby Manor. She simply wanted, needed, to return to her rightful level of society, comfortably one of the middling sort, as her parents had been. If she were a man, like Aaron, she could achieve that through the right employment, but for a woman it must be marriage. The only employment open to her would be the genteel servitude of governess or companion, with no time or place to call her own.
“This is no life for you,” Hetty stated. “So what’re ye going to do?”
Prudence sighed and stood. “Wash my blankets, maybe.”
“I don’t mean that! You don’t want t’live your life’ere and it’s not right that you do. So what’re ye going to do about it?”
“There’s nothing I
can
do.”
“There’s always summat. Why not go to Darlington and talk to your brother face-to-face? There’s many a man who’ll slide by what’s right until brought face-to-face with it.”
Prudence remembered thinking the same thing.
“It’s sixteen miles. I can’t afford the coach fare.”
Hetty screwed her face up over this. “Will’s uncle Frank drives a cart up there and back three times a week. He’d take ye along for a couple of pence.”
“I couldn’t. . ..”
What if Aaron rebuffed her? She wasn’t sure she could survive such heartlessness, such obliteration of hope.
But she suddenly remembered the Burgoyne man rushing at her attackers. Then later, the way he’d swiftly opened the door to her house and pushed her in, thus avoiding their being caught whispering together in the street.
Fearlessness.
Prompt action.
Attack.
Her innards quivered, and it was probably the cordial speaking, but she said, “I’ll do it, then. I’ll go to Darlington. I will have my justice.”
Hetty grinned and toasted her. “That’s the way of it, Pru. You go and tell ’im wot’s wot.”
Chapter 3
Darlington
 
I
t rained on the way to Darlington. Not heavily, but enough to dampen Prudence’s spirits and her clothes. Frank Jobson gave her some sacks to cover herself, but rain spotted the skirt of her blue gown.
BOOK: An Unlikely Countess
13.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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