The Scoundrel and the Debutante

BOOK: The Scoundrel and the Debutante
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“Julia London strikes gold again. Warm, witty and decidedly wicked—great entertainment.” —
New York Times
bestselling author Stephanie Laurens on
The Devil Takes a Bride

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 side—and in his bed—he'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.

Praise for
New York Times
bestselling author
Julia London

“Julia London strikes gold again. Warm, witty and decidedly wicked—great entertainment.”

—#1
New York Times
bestselling author Stephanie Laurens on
The Devil Takes a Bride

“London's writing bubbles with high emotion as she describes sexual enthusiasm, personal grief and familial warmth. Her blend of playful humor and sincerity imbues her heroines with incredible appeal, and readers will delight as their unconventional tactics create rambling paths to happiness.”

—
Publishers Weekly
on
The Devil Takes a Bride
(starred review)

“This tale of scandal and passion is perfect for readers who like to see bad girls win, but still love the feeling of a society romance, and London nicely sets up future books starring Honor's sisters.”

—
Publishers Weekly
on
The Trouble with Honor

“A delectably sexy hero, an unconventionally savvy heroine, and a completely improper business proposal add up to another winner for ever-versatile London.”

—
Booklist
on
The Trouble with Honor

“This series starter brims with delightful humor and charm.”

—
RT Book Reviews
on
The Trouble with Honor

“Julia London writes vibrant, emotional stories and sexy, richly-drawn characters.”

—
New York Times
bestselling author Madeline Hunter

Also available from Julia London and HQN Books

The Trouble with Honor
The Devil Takes a Bride

JULIA LONDON

The Scoundrel and the Debutante

This book is about Prudence, the third Cabot Sister. I am also a third sister and I sort of want to dedicate the book to me, because, like Prudence, I have been heavily influenced, unfairly put upon, greatly appreciated and dearly loved by my older sisters, one gone too soon, one still here and my best friend. So I think I will dedicate this book to them instead. To my two much adored sisters, Karen and Nancy.

CHAPTER ONE

Blackwood Hall, 1816

I
T
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 request—no, pardon—I
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 Bulworth, 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 missishly.

“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.

* * *

G
RACE
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 necessities—some 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 Merryton 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 coach—it 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.

BOOK: The Scoundrel and the Debutante
3.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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