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Authors: Jo Beverley

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BOOK: An Unlikely Countess
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Prudence had thought carefully about how and where to confront her brother. Not at his home, where he’d be under the eye of his wife. Not at his office, either. She’d relish shaming him before others, but it wouldn’t serve her purpose.
Thus, she would wait in the street at the time he would emerge to walk home for his dinner. Her sister-in-law’s letter had obliged with the information that dear Aaron came home every day to dine with her at one.
If he rebuffed her, she would not be put off. She would find out where his father-in-law, Mr. Tallbridge, lived and try to speak to him. If Tallbridge wasn’t available, she’d leave the letter she’d carefully composed, laying out the injustices of her situation. She’d tried to phrase it without bitter complaints against her brother, but she’d made a point of the possibility of embarrassment for Tallbridge’s daughter if her husband’s sister came to grief.
She was fully prepared, and was even wearing Catesby Burgoyne’s silver pin for courage, but she dearly wished she weren’t arriving in Darlington damp.
She said farewell to the carter and set about learning her way around the town, enjoying strolling through the streets just like anyone else. No one here knew she lived in White Rose Yard, and her clothing was of decent quality. In the eyes of strangers she was a respectable woman going about her respectable day.
She found the tall, terraced building that housed the legal firm where her brother was employed, and then, having time to spare, sought out his new home.
It was a small house, almost a cottage, and the front door opened directly onto the pavement without steps or railings, but it looked neatly made and suitable for a young couple starting out in life.
It would suit Prudence too, and surely now, before children, there was space. In such a house there would be ample food and she could regain her looks. From such a house she could move in Darlington society and find a husband, especially if Aaron provided a dowry.
He clearly wasn’t at all penny-pinched. In fact, he would now control his wife’s money.
She pushed away anger at that and concentrated on her future.
She returned to the busier streets looking at the goods displayed in shop windows and making imaginary purchases for her future home. That pretty flowered china. That striped material for curtains. That lovely carpet for the drawing room.
She mentally bought more trivial indulgences—a needle case, a book of poetry, a bouquet of flowers— imagining the day when she could afford to make such simple purchases without a thought.
She could remember times like that, when she and her mother would visit York and her father would give her a few coins, telling her to buy some pretty fripperies.
Pretty fripperies.
What a lovely thought.
She hovered in front of a haberdashery, tempted by blue ribbon that would match the embroidered edging on her gown. It would vastly improve her plain straw hat. She turned away, but only for now. She
would
be restored to her proper place in life, and soon. Even the clouds were moving on, carrying away the lingering threat of rain. When the sun broke through, Prudence saw it as a sign that it would be just as Hetty said—when confronted, Aaron would do the right thing.
At a quarter to the hour, she stationed herself near her brother’s employment, trying not to look conspicuous.
A portly gentleman emerged in company with another of his age and they strolled away. Two lads came out, laughing, and hurried away.
An aproned lad went in with a big basket covered with cloth. Someone in the narrow building was having dinner brought to them. Aaron? No, surely fate could not be so cruel.
When the church clock struck a quarter past the hour, however, Prudence fought tears. She’d built up her courage for this, but now she’d have to return to White Rose Yard defeated.
No. She touched the silver pin in her bodice. She’d brought it for courage, and as a reminder of Catesby Burgoyne.
Don’t dither. Charge in with weapon and battle cry.
She didn’t have any weapons, but she wouldn’t give up so easily.
If Aaron wasn’t at home, she’d tackle his wife. Yes. Walking briskly on, Prudence resolved that Susan Youlgrave must see reason when confronted with it.
The house looked just as it had before, but now seemed more daunting. Prudence again touched the pin for courage and walked across the street to use the brass knocker. After a few moments, the door was cautiously opened by a young maid. “Yes, mum?”
“Is Mistress Youlgrave in?”
The girl, clearly inexperienced, blinked. “Yes, mum. Who shall I say?”
Why hadn’t she prepared for this moment?
Courage!
“Miss Youlgrave, Mr. Youlgrave’s sister.”
The maid gaped, but then she dipped a curtsy and hurried into a nearby room. Prudence walked into the narrow hall and closed the door, feeling very satisfied with this moment, at least. She was inside, and her resolution was strengthened by everything around. Clearly her brother and his wife enjoyed comfort and elegance, and so would she.
A young woman came out of the room, wide-eyed maid close behind.
“Prudence? What are you doing here?”
Aaron’s wife was plain—completely and irredeemably plain, with a sallow, blotched complexion, doughy features, and overlarge front teeth. Perhaps that was why she and her family had favored a quite lowly match.
Prudence might feel sorry for her except that she seemed very sure of herself and her own importance. Her cream-striped gown was simple enough for a respectable young wife at home, but had probably cost many times Prudence’s annual allowance. She was also showing no trace of welcome or kindness.
“I had reason to visit Darlington,” Prudence said, taking off her gloves, grateful for Hetty’s mother’s hand cream, “so of course I came to call. Will you not offer me tea, sister?”
A mulish expression suggested that there was nothing Susan wanted less, but she must see she couldn’t throw Prudence out. The Burgoyne approach was working.
“I’m dining,” she said.
“How kind. I’d be delighted to join you.”
Susan’s eyes narrowed, but with calculation, not animosity. She was not at all stupid, and proved it.
“How kind, sister,” she said, even managing a toothy smile. “Anne, bring another cover.”
Savoring her first victory, Prudence followed into a dining room. It was small, as it would have to be in this small house, but well furnished and with a table that, extended, could seat eight at a pinch. Suitable for the rising young solicitor to entertain his colleagues and other worthies of the town.
“How lovely,” Prudence said. “Did you and Aaron choose the furnishings together?”
“My father and I. Aaron is too busy for such matters.”
“Is my brother not at home?” Prudence asked as she sat. “I did hope to see him.”
“He’s away today,” Susan Youlgrave said with a glint of satisfaction. “In Durham in connection with some marriage settlements.”
An hour ago Prudence would have thought that a tragedy, but now she was sensing this might work to her advantage. Her sister-in-law was probably as selfish as she’d thought, and certainly wished Prudence back in Northallerton, but she was clever enough to grasp the situation. And, Prudence hoped, to understand a subtle threat.
“What a shame,” Prudence said as the maid hurried back with dishes and cutlery. “I hope to be more fortunate next time I visit Darlington.”
Pay heed, sister. I’m not lurking in obscurity anymore.
Lips closed over teeth, but then Susan said, “Would you like soup? I’ve already had it removed.”
It had doubtless been excellent soup, if Prudence were to judge from the dishes before her, which were in danger of making her stomach rumble, but she said, “I’ll join you in the main courses, sister.”
Susan’s lips curled up in a smile. Her eyes remained calculating.
Struggling not to show her eagerness, Prudence helped herself to the fish dish. She recognized collared eels, and the first mouthful was so delicious that it firmed her already hard resolve. Such excellent, well-prepared food was part of her rightful place in the world.
“You have a good cook.”
“You’re too kind, sister. She’s only a plain cook-housekeeper. We’ll soon require someone more skilled as Aaron rises in his profession. So what brings you to Darlington?”
“Some minor purchases,” Prudence lied. “Thank you for your letter describing the wedding. I wish I’d been able to attend.”
Susan’s eyes narrowed again. She was accepting the essentials of the situation and the implied threat, but cannily waiting for Prudence to make the moves.
Let her wait.
Susan uncovered three more dishes. Cutlets in sauce, cooked spinach, and—wonder of wonders—peas. How long was it since she’d eaten fresh peas?
They both served themselves, and then Susan bluntly asked, “What do you want?”
Prudence decided on truth. She and her sister-in-law were unlikely to ever be on good terms, but perhaps they could deal on honest ones. Susan wanted her out of her life, and Prudence would be only too happy to be so, as long as she moved into her own home.
“I want to marry.”
“You have a suitor?”
“I find Northallerton lacking in that respect.”
“How odd. Please take wine, sister.”
Prudence hesitated, for she’d never drunk real wine. In better days, she’d been too young, and since her father’s death there’d been no indulgences. She’d had a little of Hetty’s mother’s sweet country wines, and, of course, brandy.
With Cate, as she sometimes weakly let herself think of him. She felt a familiar squeeze of foolish longing, but pushed it down and poured pale wine into her glass. Catesby Burgoyne could be at the far end of the earth by now. His only part here was as inspiration—to be bold, to be fearless. To win.
She sipped the wine. Less sweet than the brew made by Hetty’s mother, less magical than brandy.
“There is the matter of a marriage portion,” she said.
“You have none?”
“You must know that I do not.”
Susan concentrated on her food. “It’s not my husband’s duty to provide you with that which your father neglected.”
“Is it not?”
“Aaron can’t afford it,” Susan said, and put food in her mouth as if something had been settled.
“Oh, dear. I hoped to hear better of his fortunes.” Prudence savored tender cutlets and sweet peas. “However, if he’s struggling to become established, it’s surely even more important that his reputation, and that of his family, be unquestionable.”
Susan shot her a narrow look. “Your reputation is tarnished?”
“Not yet, but people might be surprised to hear that I must keep a dame school to survive.”
“Aaron sends you an allowance and you seem to be doing well enough on it.”
“This is my only decent gown, sister. It’s hard to remain decent on three guineas a month.”
“Three guineas a month?” Susan quickly hid her shock, but clearly she hadn’t known the amount. Now she was thinking even more intensely. It certainly wouldn’t enhance her husband’s reputation for it to be known that his sister lived in such poverty.
She ate another mouthful and then asked, “What sort of husband do you require?”
Prudence managed not to smile, but she silently toasted Cate Burgoyne as she sipped her wine.
“I don’t aspire too high, sister. Merely a prosperous gentleman of good social standing who will provide me with a home to manage and children to raise and love.”
“High enough for a lady without a dowry,” Susan said dryly. “And though Aaron is doing well in his profession, he isn’t yet in a position to be generous.”
Prudence ate and waited.
“It is possible my father might be persuaded to provide a modest sum,” Susan said at last. “Seeing as you are, in a way, now connected to him. My father is a very rich man.”
Prudence smiled, just enough, she hoped. “That would be most kind of him.”
She drank a little more wine and decided she liked it very much. Wine would soon be part of her daily fare, along with pretty china, rich carpets, and all the ribbons she could desire.
She and her sister-in-law would deal well together, completely based on their own selfish interests. All that was needed now was courage and resolution to complete the journey.
As she put down the wine, she mentally stroked the silver pin.
All she needed was to remember Cate Burgoyne’s bold courage.
And forget nearly everything else about him.
Chapter 4
London
June
 
“’S
truth, Cate, I fear I shall have to cut your acquaintance.”
Cate turned in surprise. “Perry? What the deuce are you doing here?”
“Seeking you,” said the honorable Peregrine Perriam, surveying the room, brows raised. “Bagnigge Wells? My poor, poor friend.”
Cate knew what his friend saw—people of the middling sort along with a few ragged fringes of nobility drinking tea or the medicinal waters, or strolling about exchanging greetings and gossip.
He supposed he was a ragged fringe, except that he’d invested in fine new clothes. His suit of blue braided in bronze might seem finer than Perry’s one of plain green cloth, but those who knew would see court grandeur in every line and detail of the green.
Damn him to Hades. Had he come here for amusement or to meddle?
“I’m assured the waters are delightfully salubrious,” Cate said coolly.
“Feeling bilious?”
There was no hiding it. “Feeling amorous. Behold, Georgiana Rumford—in pink with blond lace, eighteen years old and only daughter of the very wealthy Mr. Samuel Rumford, oil merchant.”
Georgiana stood in conversation with her mother and a number of other women, but she looked across at Cate and blushed. Though rather round and rosy, she was pretty enough. Unfortunate that Georgiana chose that moment to wiggle her fingers at Cate in a coy greeting, and even more so that she then turned to giggle with her companions.
BOOK: An Unlikely Countess
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