Can a rake change his ways? As Prudence discovers with Lord Harry, only love holds the key to a lasting redemption.
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"It's been quite some time since I have been here. What can you tell me about your mistress? I used to know Miss Prudence, but it has been many years. She wasn't anything out of the ordinary way, as I recall. In fact, I cannot recall her at all. She has grown up, one would assume."
He frowned, as if trying to picture a grown-up version of a girl he could barely remember. Then he recollected himself, and gave Prudence another blinding smile.
"Oh yes, my lord." Prudence struggled to keep her temper in check. "She is quite grown up."
"Ah, but surely the mistress is not as pretty as the maid." He lightly traced the line of her chin with his finger. Prudence felt a thrill travel from her face, where his finger made contact with her cheek, all the way to her toes, and making everything in her body between those two points feel like it was catching fire. Even though she was indignant at his presumption, Prudence found she still couldn't pull away from his touch.
"I understand she has not wed," Harry went on, in a caressing tone. "Is she much courted?"
"Why do you wish to know?" Prudence put down her dripping basket and wrung out her handkerchief, more to distract herself than anything else.
"I am just curious. If I meet her socially, I want to avoid any awkwardness that might ensue from my being away for so long. I wouldn't want to embarrass her, especially if she is unused to society."
Prudence creased her brow to simulate deep thought.
"I wouldn't say she is entirely without admirers. Farmers from this and even the neighboring shires do appreciate the value of a woman who can slaughter a pig in the morning and have it roasted and laid out on thetable for that evening's supper."
Harry drew back, jolted by her description.
"Slaughter a pig?"
"Certainly. Anyone can handle a chicken; it takes a woman of unusual strength to handle a 400-pound sow."
"So I would imagine. What other talents does Miss Culpepper possess?"
Prudence thought for another moment. Then inspiration struck her.
"Well, she has a whistle that can bring her father's pack of hounds right out of the field and back to the stables, anytime she pleases. It's so piercing it gets all the roosters going, and makes the hens scatter. And she can handle a team of draft horses like nothing you can imagine. Many's the day during plowing season when the squire has to let the farmhands take the day off because Prudence has finished the job for them."
Prudence had to bite her lip to keep from laughing at the look of dismay on Harry's face.
"It sounds as though our Prudence has developed a wealth of special attributes. Is she as comely as she is talented in other areas?"
There was hope in his voice. Prudence decided to dash it.
She cast her eyes downward. "I cannot speak for a gentleman, of course, but I have heard her compared to a breeding mare, which I can only assume makes her a desirable marriage prospect."
Harry looked like he had just swallowed a dose of castor oil, his lips thinning in distaste.
"Indeed. Well, thank you ... er..."
"Betty," Prudence supplied helpfully.
"I am glad we had this chance to meet. Our discussion has been very helpful, since I am due to meet with Miss Prudence shortly. At least now I shall be prepared, thanks to you."
He softened his voice, and held her chin again for a moment. "It is my misfortune that in this case the servant cannot exchange places with her mistress."
Prudence felt her cheeks fill with warmth, and knew she was blushing furiously. She backed away, and he caught her hands, delaying her.
"Indeed, my lord," she said, breathless. "Though as I remember once hearing my mistress say, 'there are more things in heaven and earth, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.' Or some such thing."
Harry frowned. He recognized that as a quote from Hamlet. He had just seen a production of the play a few months ago in London. Could a woman who slaughtered pigs and plowed fields have the delicacy to quote Shakespeare? Betty must be mistaken--she must have heard it from the vicar, or even the squire. But how charming of her to repeat what she'd heard, almost as if she had read it herself.
"I must go, my lord. They will miss me back at home. And I must get out of these wet clothes. Besides, it would not do for you to be seen talking to me--it could ruin my reputation!"
Despite her words, he noticed she didn't seem to be in a great hurry; she favored him with a saucy smile and a wink.
Harry realized he was having more fun than he'd had in weeks. Betty was surprisingly comely, a most delicious womanly morsel, and she engaged him with her wit in a way that rivaled the most cultivated London beauties of his acquaintance. He found he did not want this dalliance to end.
"Come, Betty, do not be so cruel. Must it be my fate to never see you again? I do not believe I could bear it."
Still holding her hands, he pulled her to him. She looked surprised, but she did not resist.
"Would you not miss me, too?" he murmured, coming closer. "Just a little, perhaps?"
When his mouth was less than an inch from hers, he paused, using all his self-control. Meeting no objections, he gently lowered his mouth onto hers.
For one long glorious moment, they kissed. Harry could no longer help himself, and he pulled her into his arms to deepen their kiss. He tried to part her luscious full lips with his. At first she complied, then she pulled back suddenly, breaking their embrace.
"My lord! How dare you!"
"Come now, Betty, you enjoyed it as much as I!"
"But you were just inquiring about Miss Prudence!"
Harry laughed. "That was business, Betty. With you, it is pure pleasure."
Betty's eyes widened, and then she did something most unexpected. She slapped him.
It didn't hurt. And certainly he had been slapped before. But this was no teasing blow from a coquette. This was the slap of an outraged woman.
"Betty, don't be angry. I didn't mean any harm. You do not have to leave so soon. At least tell me when we can next meet, for I shall be desolate if I cannot see you again."
But the serving girl had picked up her basket, and was wiping her eyes. Whether she was crying or why, Harry couldn't discern.
"I am sure you exaggerate, my lord. But do not despair. I am confident we will meet again, and when you least expect it." Holding her sodden skirt away from her body, she turned and ran as fast as she could in the direction of Culpepper Manor.
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