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Saint Louis, 1890
Prudence Perkins paced the parlor of her home, mentally preparing for the inevitable clash with her father. Her grandmother, self–appointed ruler of the Perkins family, had been pressuring Pru's father to contract a marriage. Pru knew that her father had a history of bowing to Gram's wishes. It amazed Pru that Horatio Perkins, who was widely known for his tough business skills and his ability to steadily increase the profits of Perkins Fur Company, had never learned to stand up to his own mother.
Sighing heavily, Pru reversed direction to wear a few more ruts in the Aubusson carpet that Gram had ordered from Europe the previous year. She stopped short and glanced around the expensively furnished room, as if seeing it for the first time. It dawned on Pru that the furnishings and décor—right down to the grandfather clock in the corner, the original oil paintings on the walls and the ornately carved clock on the mantel—had all been selected and delivered at Gram's decree.
This wasn't Pru and her father's home. It certainly didn't reflect Pru's tastes. This was the proverbial castle that Gram had created to flaunt the Perkins wealth. Pru had become one of Gram's projects years ago and now she was to be thrust into a marriage she didn't want.
The thought caused Pru to halt abruptly, leaving her full skirts whirling about her legs. It suddenly occurred to her that her widowed grandmother had created this elaborately decorated dollhouse for her only son. Now she was railroading Pru into an unwanted marriage so she could assume the task of constructing a new dollhouse for Pru to live in. No doubt, Gram stillintended to lord over Pru as she had for a dozen years.
A surging sense of panic overcame Pru. Her thoughts whirring, she took up pacing again and nervously wrung her hands. For the twenty–three years of her existence, she had been dragged to social events and taught to behave with the decorum befitting the high and mighty Perkins family—Gram's perception, not Pru's. She had managed to ditch every suitor who bore Gram's stamp of approval, but time was running out. Gram was on a relentless mission to get Pru married so construction could begin on a new, life–size dollhouse.
The impulsive urge to flee provoked Pru to lurch toward the door. Unfortunately, she was too late. Her father strode through the arched entryway. His hands were clasped behind his back. His brown hair, which was showing signs of gray and receding a bit, was combed back from his forehead. His facial expression and the intensity of his blue eyes indicated that he was deep in thought. At fiftytwo, Horatio, a widower, was still a fine figure of a man. He was also one of the most sought–after men in Saint Louis' high society.
Horatio halted in the middle of the room, adjusted his wire–rimmed spectacles and flicked a piece of lint from his custom–made jacket—one of the many Gram had ordered for him. Then he gestured toward the tufted sofa that Gram had purchased last Christmas.
"Pru, take a seat, please."
"I prefer to stand." She tilted her chin and met his gaze head–on. "Why have you summoned me, Papa?" As if she didn't know.
"Your grandmother thinks it's time to make the formal wedding arrangements so we can get your life squared away."
Pru tilted her chin up another notch, causing her curly blond hair to ripple over her rigid shoulders. "I haven't found a man interesting enough to spend the rest of my life with," she replied. "It would be premature to plan a wedding until I have selected a groom."
"Your grandmother has been using her connections to find a suitable match." Her father's gaze narrowed as he added pointedly. "She doesn't think you've put much effort into finding a husband. She says that all your noble causes occupy so much of your time that your social life has suffered."
"Noble causes have a way of doing that," she contended.
"They are also more important than frivolous social parties."
Horatio flicked his wrist dismissively. "All the same, Pru, you are well past marriage age, as your grandmother keeps reminding me. I need to take command of the situation."
There it was again. The annoying fact that Gram ruled this roost and her son had difficulty standing up to his mother, even in defense of his one and only daughter.
Honestly, there was a time when she was a child that she had wondered if her mother had died just to avoid Gram's domineering manner. Later, of course, she realized that illness was the contributing cause. But still!
"The fact that you have been single since Mama passed on thirteen years ago proves that a Perkins can survive alone," Pru pointed out.
Horatio shifted awkwardly from one well–shod foot to the other. "Just because I haven't remarried doesn't mean I have been entirely without a woman's attention." He cleared his throat and stared at the gold–plated clock on the mantel. "For you, however, there is the obligation of providing an heir."
Her obligation? Her family duty? "I resent the implication that it is my duty to become a broodmare in order to produce the next overseer for the family fur business. This is my life and I am entitled to my own choices of what to do with it. One of my callings is to see that women enjoy the same rights and privileges as men, you know. I fully intend to be the mistress of my own fate, Papa."
"It's that rebellious attitude that has made it difficult to find you a match, young lady." Thump, thump, thump.
Pru spun around to see Gram lurking in the hall. She was dressed in her usual black ensemble and she surged into the parlor to the rhythmic click of her elaborately carved cane. It was fitting that the ivory handle was carved in the likeness of a dragonhead. Pru had been the recipient of many a whack from that cane when she had stepped out of line in years past.
"You were eavesdropping, Gram?" Of course she was. It was a perfected skill that Gram relied on to keep abreast of everything that transpired around this house. The only busybody in town who ran a close second was Victoria Reams, who had set her sights on Horatio. But even she couldn't outmaneuver the seventy–four–year–old curmudgeon to land one of Saint Louis' wealthiest entrepreneurs.
The thought of having Victoria as her stepmother, while Gram continued to lord over her, made Pru grimace.
"I was not eavesdropping," Gram harrumphed. "I was simply on my way through the foyer and happened to overhear your conversation."
Likely story, thought Pru. Gram could sniff out conversations that were none of her business better than a bloodhound.
The familiar thump of the cane serenaded Gram as she crossed the room to sink onto the sofa. "I have made the necessary arrangements with the Donald family and Edwin will be around tomorrow evening to escort you to the Winstons' spring ball."
Pru's back went ramrod stiff. "Edwin is the last man I intend to marry. He is his father's puppet and mouthpiece. Heavens, I'm not certain Edwin entertains any of his own thoughts or opinions. I'd die of boredom if I married him."
"Don't be melodramatic," Gram said and sniffed. "I managed to stay married to Horatio's father for twenty years and, believe me, no one was as dull as Henry."
Pru darted a glance at her father to see the small flicker of irritation in his blue eyes. But as usual when it came to an outright clash with his overbearing mother, Horatio Perkins kept silent.
Prudence Elizabeth Perkins, however, did not. "That is an insensitive remark about Grandfather. I—"
Gram thumped Pru's toe with that infamous cane then shook her finger in Pru's face—and not for the first time, of course. Pru had been on the receiving end of that wagging forefinger even more times than she'd felt the sting of the cane.
"Do not be disrespectful, young lady," Gram scolded.
"You are testing my patience to the limits."
Nothing new there, thought Pru. She'd been doing that for thirteen years.All these years of defying Gram's decrees and machinations had taken their toll and tried Pru's patience to the extreme. It had reached the point that freedom of choice and independence had become something Pru craved above all else. So Pru did what her own father didn't have the gumption to do—she stood up to Gram.
"There will be no wedding to Edwin or anyone else until I make the choice," Pru said in no uncertain terms.
Gram gasped and then stared her down with those slate–gray eyes that shot sparks. But Pru had learned to hold her own while debating civic issues and women's rights with her father's associates on the city council. They thought she was too young and too female to have an informed opinion but she let it be known that she was knowledgeable and determined.
When Gram couldn't glare Pru into submission, she turned to Horatio for reinforcement. Pru's greatest disappointment came when her father didn't rise to her defense.
"Your grandmother has gone to great lengths to secure a fine match to Edwin and the Donald family," her father chimed in. "And the merger will benefit our family business since the Donalds deal in priceless gems."
"Ah, yes, the merger of diamonds and furs," Pru said caustically. "What else could a woman possibly want?" "Do not take that tone again," Gram's thin gray brows formed a sharp V over her eyes. "Sometimes I wonder if I made a critical error when I insisted Horatio name you after me."
And there was the rub. Prudence Elizabeth Perkins carried Prudence Meriwether Perkins'given name. If Gram had her way—and she usually did—Pru's firstborn daughter would be known as Prudence Meriwether Perkins Whoever.
Pru drew herself up to full stature. "Papa, I am hereby declaring that I am not marrying Edwin Donald because not only do I not love him—"
"What has love got to do with anything, you silly ninny?" This from Gram who was glaring poison darts at Pru.
"Nor do I even like Edwin very much. He is a stuffed shirt," Pru went on to say, ignoring Gram—which was no small feat. "Furthermore, I have decided to strike off to make a life for myself."
"Then you'll do it without the financial backing of the Perkins' fortune. Tell her so, Horatio."
Pru gritted her teeth and felt disappointment bombard her when her father kowtowed to Gram's wishes for the millionth time. He chose obligation to his mother over love for his daughter.
"Mother is quite right, Pru. It's time you learned that you are a product of your privileged upbringing. If you choose to strike off on your own, then you can finance the endeavor, which I must tell you would be an unwise adventure that will land you in trouble."
"If you think withholding funds will bring me to heel, you are both mistaken," Pru replied heatedly.
"I'm willing to bet that you will come crawling back to the luxuries your father and I have provided for you in less than a month," Gram challenged. "You aren't trained for manual labor and I refuse to bear the shame of watching you become a nanny for an upper–class family. We will not be embarrassed because you have become disrespectful and rebellious."
Pru stuck out her chin—and her neck—and said, "I will take that bet. I'm sure there's something I'm good at and I intend to explore my options. Obviously, I have no life here, only unreasonable expectations. I will begin my search for gainful employment immediately."
"Come back here, you insolent brat! How dare you!" Gram snapped as Pru sailed past her father, who simply gaped at her then stared bewilderedly at his mother.
Pru didn't break stride, just snatched up the daily newspaper from the credenza in the marble–tiled foyer. She glanced at her reflection in the gilded mirror. Her face was flushed with angry red blotches. Her eyes—the exact same shade of cobalt blue as her father's—narrowed in indignation. Her chest rose and fell with every agitated breath. She looked exactly as she felt—furious, disappointed and belligerent.
"By damned, there is a position somewhere that will pay for my room and board," she told her reflection. Her private tutors claimed she had a bright, inquisitive mind and quick wit. Now was the perfect time to test her talents.
"Prudence Elizabeth Perkins, get back in here this instant!" Gram yowled. Her cane thumped the floor, as if that would bring her contrary granddaughter to heel. "Tell her, Horatio, for God's sake! You have no control whatsoever over that girl. She has become the bane of my existence!"