Sparks fly in this irresistible final installment in the Cabot Sisters trilogy! Fans of Julia Quinn will love this “sinfully sexy” novel by New York Times bestselling author Julia London.
The dust of the Cabot sisters' shocking plans to rescue their family from certain ruin may have settled, but Prudence Cabot is left standing in the rubble of scandal. Now regarded as an unsuitable bride, she's tainted among the ton. Yet this unwilling wallflower is ripe for her own adventure. And when an irresistibly sexy American stranger on a desperate mission enlists her help, she simply can't deny the temptation.
The fate of Roan Matheson's family depends on how quickly he can find his runaway sister and persuade her to return to her betrothed. Scouring the rustic English countryside with the sensually wicked Prudence at his sideand in his bedhe's out of his element. But once Roan has a taste of the sizzling passion that can lead to forever, he must choose between his heart's obligations and its forbidden desires.
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Blackwood Hall, 1816
It was an unspoken truth that when a woman reached her twenty-second year without a single gentleman even pondering the possibility of marriage to her, she was destined for spinsterhood. Spinsterhood, in turn, essentially sentenced her to the tedium of acting as companion to doddering dowagers as they dawdled about the countryside.
A woman without prospects in her twenty-second year was viewed suspiciously by the haut ton. There must be something quite off about her. It was impossible to think otherwise, for why would a woman, properly presented at court and to society, with means of dowry, with acceptably acknowledged connections, have failed to attract a suitor? There were only three possible explanations.
She was unforgivably plain.
She was horribly diseased.
Or, her older sisters' scandalous antics four years past had ruined her. Utterly, completely, ruined her.
The third hypothesis was presented by Miss Prudence Cabot days after her twenty-second birthday. Her hypothesis was roundly rejected by her scandalous older sisters, Mrs. Honor Easton and Grace, Lady Merryton.
In fact, when her older sisters were not rolling their eyes or refusing to engage at all, they argued quite vociferously against her theory, their duet of voices rising up so sharply that Mercy, the youngest of the four Cabot sisters, whistled at them as if they were the rowdy puppies that fought over Lord Merryton's boot.
Her sisters' protests to the contrary notwithstanding, Prudence was convinced she was right. Since her stepfather had died four years ago, her sisters had engaged in wretched behavior. Honor had publicly proposed marriage to a known rake and bastard son of a duke in a gaming hell. While Prudence adored George, it did not alter the scandal that had followed or the taint it had put on the Cabots.
Not to be outdone, Grace had endeavored to entrap a rich man into marriage in order to save them all from ruin, and somehow managed to trap the wrong man. It was the talk in London for months, and while Grace's husband, Lord Merryton, was not as aloof as Prudence had always heard, his entry into the family had not improved Prudence's prospects in the least.
Nor did it help in any way that her younger sister, Mercy, had a countenance so feisty and irreverent that serious thought had been given to packing her off to a young ladies' school to tame the beast in her.
That left Prudence in the middle, sandwiched tightly between scandals and improper behavior. She was squarely in the tedious, underappreciated, put-upon, practically invisible middle where she'd lived all her life.
This, Prudence told herself, was what good manners had gotten her. She had endeavored to be the practical one in an impractical gaggle of sisters. The responsible one who had taken her music lessons just as faithfully as she'd taken care of her mother and stepfather while her sisters cavorted through society. She'd done all the things debutantes were to do, she'd caused not a whit of trouble, and her thanks for that was now to be considered the unweddable one!
Well, Mercy likely was unweddable, too, but Mercy didn't seem to care very much.
"Unweddable is not even a proper word," Mercy pointed out, adjusting her spectacles so that she might peer critically at Prudence.
"It's also utter nonsense," Grace said tetchily. "Why on earth would you say such a thing, Pru? Are you truly so unhappy here at Blackwood Hall? Did you not enjoy the festival we hosted for the tenants?"
A festival! As if her wretched state of being could be appeased with a festival! Prudence responded with a dramatic bang of the keys of the pianoforte that caused the three-legged dog Grace had rescued to jump with fright and topple onto his side. Prudence launched into a piece that she played very loudly and very skillfully, so that everything Grace or Mercy said was drowned out by the music.
There was nothing any of them could say to change her opinion.
Later that week, Prudence's oldest sister, Honor, had come down from London to Blackwood Hall with her three children in tow as well as her dapper husband, George. When Honor heard of the contretemps between sisters, she'd tried to convince Prudence that a lack of a viable offer of marriage did not mean all was lost. Honor had insisted, with vigor and enthusiasm, that her sisters' behavior had no influence on Prudence's lack of an offer. Honor now reminded her that Mercy, against all odds, had been accepted into the prestigious Lisson Grove School of Art to study the masters.
"Well, naturally I was. I am quite talented," Mercy unabashedly observed.
"Lord Merryton had to pay a pretty sum to sway them, didn't he?" Prudence sniffed.
"Yes," Grace agreed. "But if she were as plagued with scandal as you suggest, they would have refused her yet."
"Refused Merryton's purse?" Prudence laughed. "It's not as if they had to marry her, for God's sake."
"I beg your pardon! What of my talent?" Mercy demanded.
"Hush," Grace and Prudence said in unison. That spurred Mercy to push her spectacles up her nose and march from the room in her paint-stained smock.
Grace and Honor paid her no mind.
The debate continued on for days, much to Prudence's dismay. "You must trust that an offer will come, dearest, and then you will be astonished that you put so much stock into such impossible feelings," Honor said a bit condescendingly as the sisters dined at breakfast one morning.
"Honor?" Prudence said politely. "I kindly requestno, pardonI implore you to cease talking."
Honor gasped. And then she stood abruptly and flounced past Prudence with such haste that her hand connected a little roughly with Prudence's shoulder.
"Ouch," Prudence said.
"Honor means only to help, Pru," Grace chastised her. "Honor means only to help."
"I mean more than that," Honor said sternly, charging back around again, as she really was not the sort to flee in tears when there was a good fight to be had. "I insist that you snap out of your doldrums, Pru! It's unbecoming and bothersome!"
"I'm not in doldrums," Prudence said.
"You are! You're forever cross," said Mercy.
"And moody," Grace hastened to agree.
"I will tell you only what a loving sister will tell you truly, darling." Honor leaned over the dining table so that she was eye level with Prudence. "You're a bloody chore." But she smiled when she said it and quickly straightened. "Mrs. Bulworth has written and asked you to come and see her new baby. Do go and see her. She will be beside herself with joy, and I think that the country air will do you good."
Prudence snorted at that ridiculous notion. "How can I possibly be improved by country air when I am already in the country?"
"Northern country air is vastly different," Honor amended. Grace and Mercy nodded adamantly that Honor was right.
Prudence would like nothing better than to explain to them all that calling on their friend Cassandra Bul-worth, who had just been delivered of her first child, was the last thing she wanted to do. To see her friend so deliriously happy made Prudence feel that much more wretched about her own circumstance. "Send Mercy!"
"Me?" Mercy cried. "I couldn't possibly! I've very little time to prepare for school. I must complete my still life painting, you know. Every student must have a complete portfolio and I haven't finished my still life."
"What about Mamma?" Prudence demanded, ignoring Mercy. They could not deny their mother's madness necessitated constant supervision from them.
"We have her maid Hannah, and Mrs. Pettigrew from the village," Grace said. "And we have Mercy, as well."
"Me!" Mercy cried. "I just said"
"Yes, yes, we are all intimately acquainted with all you must do for school, Mercy. On my word, one would think you were the only person to have ever been accepted into a school. But you aren't leaving us for another month, so why should you not have the least responsibility?" Grace asked. Then she turned to Prudence and smiled sweetly. "Pru, we're only thinking of you. You see that, don't you?"
"I don't believe you," Prudence said. "But it so happens that I find you all quite tedious."
Honor gasped with delight and clasped her hands to her breast. "Does that mean you'll go?"
"Perhaps I shall," Prudence sniffed. "I'll be as mad as Mamma if I stay any longer at Blackwood Hall."
"Oh, that's wonderful news," Grace said happily.
"Well, you needn't rejoice in it," Prudence said mis-sishly.
"But we're so happy!" Honor squealed. "I mean, happy for you," she quickly corrected, and hurried around the table to hug Prudence tightly to her. "I think your mien will be vastly improved if you just step out into the world, dearest."
Prudence scarcely thought so. Out into the world was where she lost all heart. Happy people, happy friends, all of them embarking on a life that Prudence had always hoped would be hers, made her terribly unhappy. Prudence was filled with envy, and she could not beat it down, no matter how much she would have liked, no matter how much she had tried. Even mortifyingly worse, Prudence's envy of the happiness surrounding her was apparent. Lately, it felt as if even sunshine was a cruel reminder of her situation.
But as Mercy launched into her complaints that so much attention was being paid to Prudence when she needed it, Prudence decided she would go. Anything to be free of the happy chatter she was forced to endure day in and day out.
Grace arranged it all, announcing grandly one afternoon that Prudence would accompany Dr. Linford and his wife north, as they would be traveling that way to visit Mr. Linford's mother. The Linfords would deposit Prudence in the village of Himple where Mr. Bulworth would send his man to come and fetch her and bring her to their newly completed mansion. Cassandra, who had come out with Prudence and had received several offers of marriage in her debut Season compared to Prudence's astounding lack of them, would be waiting with her baby.
"But the Linford coach is quite small," Mercy said, frowning so that it caused her spectacles to slide down her nose. She was seated at her new easel, drawing a bowl of fruit for her painting. That's what the masters did, she'd informed them earlier. They sketched first, then painted. "Prudence will be forced to carry on a conversation for hours," she added absently as she studied her sketch.
"What's wrong with conversation?" Honor demanded as she braided the hair of her daughter, Edith.
"Nothing at all if you care so much for the weather.
Dr. Linford speaks of nothing else. It's a fine day, and what not. Pru doesn't care so much for weather, do you, Pru?"
Prudence shrugged. She didn't care much for anything.
On the day of her departure, Prudence's trunk and valise were carried downstairs to a waiting carriage that would ferry her to Ashton Down, where Prudence was to meet the Linfords at one o'clock. In her valise, she included her necessitiessome ribbons for her hair, a silk chemise Honor had brought for her from the new London modiste she raved about, some lovely slippers, and a change of clothing. She said goodbye to her overly cheerful sisters and started off at a quarter to twelve.
The ever-efficient Blackwood Hall coach reached Ashton Down at ten past twelve.
"You needn't wait with me, James," Prudence said, already weary. "The Linfords will be along shortly."
James, the driver, seemed uncertain. "Lord Merry-ton does not like the ladies to wait unattended, miss."
For some reason, that rankled Prudence. "You may tell him that I insisted," she said. "If you will deposit my things just there," she said, waving absently at the sidewalk along High Street. She smiled at James, adjusted her bonnet, and took herself up the street to the dry goods and sundries shop, where she purchased some sweetmeats for the journey. When she made her purchase, she walked outside. She saw her things on the sidewalk as she'd asked, and the Blackwood Hall carriage was gone. Finally.
Prudence lifted her face to the late-summer sun. It was a warm, glorious day, and she decided to wait on the village green just across from her luggage. She arranged herself on a bench, folded her gloved hands over her package of sweetmeats and idly examined some flowers in a planter beside her. The blooms were fading just like her.
Prudence sighed loudly.
The sound of an approaching coach brought her to her feet. She stood up, dusted off her lap, tucked her package in the crook of her arm and looked up the road, expecting to see the Linford coach roll down the street.
But it wasn't the Linford coachit was one of two private stagecoaches that came through Ashton Down every day, one midday, one later in the afternoon.
Prudence sat down heavily on the bench once more.
The coach pulled to a halt on the road before her. Two men jumped off the back runner; one of them opened the door. A young couple stepped out, the woman carrying an infant. Behind them emerged a man so broad in the shoulder he had to turn to fit through the opening. He fairly leaped out of the coach, landing sure-footedly, and adjusted the hat on his head. He looked as if he'd just returned from an architectural dig, dressed in buckskins, a lawn shirt and a dark coat that reached his knees. His hat looked as if it was quality, although it showed signs of wear. And his boots looked as if they'd not been shined in an age. He had a dusty shadow of a beard on his square jaw.
The man turned a slow circle in the middle of the street, oblivious to the young men who rushed to change the horses and deposit luggage onto the curb. Whatever the passenger saw caused him to suddenly stride to the front of the coach and begin to argue vociferously with the driver.
Prudence blinked with surprise. How interesting.
She straightened her back and looked around, wondering what the gentleman had seen to anger him so. But observing nothing out of the ordinary on the village green or on the high street, she stood up, and as casually and inconspicuously as she might, she moved closer, pretending to examine some rose blooms so that she might hear his complaint.
"As I said, sir, Wesleigh is just up the road there. A half-hour walk, no more."
"But you don't seem to understand my point, my good man," the gentleman said in an accent that was quite flat. "Wesleigh is a house. Not a settlement. I understood I'd be delivered to an estate. An estate! A very large house with outbuildings and various people roaming about to do God knows what it is you do in England," he exclaimed, his hands busily sketching the estate in the air.
The driver shrugged. "I drive where I'm paid to drive, and I ain't paid to drive to Wesleigh. Ain't a grand house there by no means."
"This is preposterous!" the man bellowed. "I've paid good money to be delivered to the proper place!"
The driver ignored him.
The gentleman swept his hat off a head full of thick brown hair and threw it with great force to the ground. It scudded along and landed very close to Prudence. He looked about for his hat and, spotting Prudence at the edge of the green, he suddenly strode forward, the paper held out before him.