Prudence's plan to save her beautiful sisters from the brutal guardianship
of their grandfather seems foolproof... until she comes up against a charming,
devious and utterly irresistible rake.
have we here, Bartlett?"
Prudence jumped. In the doorway stood a tall, dark, rather raffish-looking
gentleman. Prudence blinked. She had seen several dukes since arriving
in London. This one did not look as a duke ought to look. Though his clothing
was of the finest quality it was rumpled and crumpled. His coat was unbuttoned
and carelessly worn. His neckcloth was a little skewed and knotted negligently
beneath quite moderate shirt points. And he seemed not to have shaved,
for his chin, though attractively shaped, was decidedly dark and rough-looking.
She had expected a duke, even a hermit duke, to be a little more dapper
in appearance. Only royal dukes looked this disheveled. But perhaps this
was why he was a hermit. Or perhaps she had got him out of his bed. For
some reason the thought made her blush.
Had she not known who he was, she might have been concerned at being alone
with such a man, for he looked decidedly dark and dangerous. And the gleam
in his eye as he looked at her was certainly not one a girl should trust,
Prudence decided, duke or no! His eyes were dark and narrow and seemed
to be laughing at her for no reason she could imagine.
She sat a little straighter on the hard chair and clutched her reticule
beneath her bosom.
"Bartlett?" he repeated to the butler standing just outside
the door. He sauntered in, not taking his eyes off Prudence. "Who
is our charming visitor?"
The butler followed him into the room, bringing with him the faint scent
of musk. "This Young Person, sir, arrived Intemperately this morning,
announcing her determination to converse with the Duke of Dinstable. There
is another Female outside, who accompanied the Young Person."
Prudence jumped up indignantly. "How dare you speak of me in that
tone! I am not a Young Person at allI am a young lady! And I did
not arrive intemperately. It is a perfectly reasonable hour"
The tall gentleman's brow quirked skeptically, and she flushed and corrected
herself with dignity, recalling that she had probably got him out of his
bed. And that she was supposed to be a bored and soignée
young lady, quite accustomed to calling on gentlemen.
"Perhaps it is a little early for some people, but when you hear
what I have to say, Your Grace, I am sure you will understand."
"Oh but" began the butler.
"That will be all, Bartlett," the tall gentleman said suavely.
The butler hesitated a moment, looking doubtfully from the duke to Prudence.
Prudence bridled at his expression. "Your master will be quite safe
with me," she snapped. "I mean him no harm!"
The tall gentleman chuckled softly. "You heard the lady, Bartlett.
I am quite safe with her. You may go."
must apologize, Your Grace, for it is all my fault. I truly never
meant to drag you into it, only . . ." She sighed. "It is a
complicated tale, but I shall try to cut it to the bare essentials."
He smiled. "Good. I always prefer essentials bared."
Somehow, he made it sound . . . wicked. Prudence blinked hurriedly and
wished she'd brought a fan. It really was very warm in here all of a sudden.
"You see, one of us must find a husband quickly, only it cannot be
One dark winged eyebrow arched in a sardonic query.
She hurried on. "It must be one of my sisters. Only my great-uncle
thinks that we should not come out together, that I should come out first."
She flushed and for some reason found that she could not bring herself
to explain the reason to him. "Yes. So I told him a lie and, and,
your name came up, and I'm sorry, I truly am. I thought it would help
my sisters to come out, only it has all come awry. I did not think it
would cause such a problem because I thought you safe in the wilds of
Scotland! I had counted on the delay, you see. And letters go astray,
all the time."
The mobile mouth twitched a little and the hard expression in his eyes
was replaced by an amused gleam. "It was thoughtless of me to come
to London, I see. So inconvenient." He smiled a slow smile, and for
a moment it drove all rational thought from her head.
She stammered, "Oh, nno. You could not know. But I was shocked
to find you here. For you almost never mix in society, do you?"
"No," he said apologetically. "I do not care for many of
the people, you see."
The clock struck half past the hour, chiming once in a somber, fatalistic
fashion. Prudence jumped. "Oh nohalf past nine. Already!"
She resumed her pacing.
"Yes, a ridiculous hour, I agree." He yawned.
Ridiculous? Prudence stared at him in amazement. He clearly had not grasped
the urgency of the situation. If only he would stop looking at her like,
like an amused satyr, she might be able to manage a clear and rational
explanation! "The thing is, Your Grace, Great-uncle Oswald is coming
to see you. Any minute now. To demand an explanation."
"Oh, Great-uncle Oswald is also vexed with me for not staying in
Scotland, is he?"
"Oh no," said Prudence, distractedly. "He is delighted
you are here, of course." She flushed and swallowed and tried to
gather her composure. "For . . . for reasons that are rather complicatedbut
altruisticI allowed my great Uncle to come to a certain conclusion
about you. And me." She felt her face heat further. It was not like
her to dither, but the situation was truly fantastical, and the way this
man's gaze kept slipping over her was very disconcerting. He flustered
"A certain conclusion?"
She cast him a look of entreaty, putting off the horrid moment of truth
yet again. "You must believe me, Your Grace. I never meant to land
anyone in a pickle."
"No, of course not." His eyes were dancing now, she noticed.
How could he be amused at a time like this!
He stood up, strolled across the room and pulled at the cord hanging by
the fireplace. In a moment the door opened and the butler stood there.
"A brandy, if you please, Bartlett. And something for the lady. Ratafia?
Prudence was appalled. "You cannot possibly mean to be drinking spirituous
liquor at this time of the morning!"
The duke nodded at Bartlett. "Tea for Miss Merridew, then, and brandy
for me. And Bartlett, bring the decanter."
"But you cannot greet Great-uncle Oswald with a glass of brandy in
"My dear girl, I am afraid I cannot greet him any other way. It is
not morning for me, you see, but the end of a particularly long and tedious
night. And if I am to be thrust into a pickle without the fortification
of a brandy, I cannot answer for the consequences."
Guilt stabbed Prudence at his words. She rallied. The situation was difficult
enough to explain without the duke getting drunk. "But Great-uncle
Oswald abhors the Evils of Liquor!"
"He can have tea, then."
"Oh, will you please be serious! You cannot imagine what is about
He laughed at that, a deep throated chuckle that filled the room. "I
have not the faintest notion what any of this is about."
Just then Bartlett arrived with a tea tray on which stood a pot of tea,
a plate of cakes, a cup and saucer, a fat crystal glass, and a tall crystal
decanter containing a mellow golden liquid. As he placed it on a side
table, the front door knocker sounded thunderously. Prudence squeaked.
"Oh no! He is here! Great-uncle Oswald!"
"I believe it is the lady's great-uncle at the door, Bartlett,"
the duke said. "Show him in, if you please."
Bartlett bowed, thin-lipped, then left the room in a stately manner to
answer the summons.
"The thing is," Prudence gabbled, "for reasons I have no
time to explain just now, I told him that you and I were secretly betrothed"
The smile on his face froze. "Betrothed!"
"Yes, I am sorry. It was all I could think of to make him see reason
about Charity and the twins making their coming-outfor which the
need is urgent, though I cannot explain why. But Great-uncle Oswald will
not let them come out with me"
"I imagine he has good reason" the duke said ironically.
"Well, yes, because" She flushed. "The reason does
not matter. What matters is that they cannot enter society until I am
out of the way and I thought you would suit my purposes perfectly, being
a famous hermit"
"Are you really?" he interjected interestedly.
"Am I what?" demanded Prudence, confused.
"A famous hermit."
"Not me, lack-wityou!" she snapped. "Oh, I do beg
your pardonmy nerves are shredded! But you are the famous hermit!
Except you've emerged from your hermitage, and some wretched busybody
put it in the paper, and now here is Great-uncle Oswald come to demand
that you marry me! Immediately!"
That wiped the smile from his face, she noted with satisfaction. "I
told you it was serious, Your Grace."
An expression of unholy glee flashed across the dark-visaged face. "I
can see it is." He chuckled. "And I definitely need that brandy."
He strolled across the room to the tray with the decanter. "Would
you care to pour your tea, Miss Merridew?"
Outside, Prudence could hear Great-uncle Oswald noisily demanding to see
the Duke of Dinstable. She hurried across to where the duke was standing
and laid a reassuring hand on his arm. "Do not fear," she whispered
hastily, "It may be a tangle, but it is not a trap. If you will only
allow my uncle to believe we did have an understanding, I promise you
most faithfully I will sever the engagement immediately. Please, I beg
of you, just follow my lead. Trust me, Your Grace. I mean you no harm."
He glanced down at her hand patting his arm soothingly. "Trust you?"
His eyes caught hers and held them for a long, long moment, and for a
second Prudence felt as if something important had happened. But then
he shifted, and his eyes laughed down at her again as if that moment of
connection had never been. "Then bring on your dragons, fair maiden,"
he said, and lifted his glass to his lips.
Prudence scanned his face worriedly. He was very hard to read. For a second
there she'd felt so . . . so heartened by that long look, as if she could
depend on him in some way. Yet a moment later he seemed to find the whole
thing hugely entertaining and was quite unworried by the prospect of Great-uncle
Oswald's imminent arrival. Was that because, as a duke, he thought himself
She took a deep breath and braced herself for the coming scene.
Gideon watched her interestedly out of the corner of his eye. She was
an attractive little thing, he decided, not conventionally beautiful,
but with a decided air of determination and a most appealing way of looking
at him. Her simple pale green gown set off her thick, glorious hair, pale
skin, and wide gray eyes. The simple style, the direct gray gaze was refreshing,
in a Quakerish sort of fashion.
Not that her behavior was Quakerish in the leastbut then nor was
his interest, he had to admit. That small, stubborn chin was braced for
trouble, prepared to meet it head on. It seemed as though, having imagined
she had got him into hot water, she was now prepared to defend him.
He found it rather refreshing. He sipped the cognac and made a small wager
with himself as to how far she would let the joke go before she confessed
all. Of course she might be a blackmailing harpy, but he didn't think
so. He was all too well acquainted with females of that variety.
"So, you will defend me from your great-uncle?" he asked softly.
She turned back to him with wide, sincere eyes. "Of course
It was more than refreshing; it was irresistible, and Gideon couldn't
help himself. Without thinking, he put down his glass, pulled her into
his arms, and kissed her. He'd meant it to be a swift, light kiss, something
of a thanks with a touch of mischievous provocation, but instead found
himself plunged into unexpected depths. She tasted of surprise and sweetness
and innocence, but she could not disguise her instinctive response to
him. No Quakerishness there, he thought raggedly and took the kiss deeper.
The taste of her was intoxicating. He let his own instincts rule him and
drew her more firmly against his body, enjoying the way her soft curves
molded against him. Her stiffness slowly dissolved and when he felt the
first tentative response from her, it sent a thread of pure possessiveness
arching through him.
A clatter outside the door brought him to his senses. Reluctantly he released
her, and she moved back an inch or two, blinking up at him, looking adorably
confused. He was very tempted to kiss her again.
She eyed him with a mixture of disapproval and shocked awareness. "You
should not have done that."
He took a moment to respond. "I'll do it again in a moment if you
didn't stop looking at me like that."
"Don't you dare!" She gave him a haughty little warning glare.
He fought the urge to smile. Even her disapproval was appealing. Mastering
the urge to kiss her again, he picked up his cognac and sipped. The door
was thrown open. Prudence jumped visibly and clutched Gideon's arm. He
was certain she had no idea of it.
"Good God!" A fussily dressed elderly man came into the room
and stood stock-still on the threshold, staring at the occupants in stupefaction.
"Prudence! How come you to be here?"
This was, no doubt, Great-uncle Oswald. In a leisurely manner, Gideon
finished his cognac, well aware that the elderly man was snorting and
snuffing in outrage, but forced by good manners to wait for his host to
acknowledge his presence. Gideon let him wait. Miss Merridew was still
clutching his armunconsciously, he suspected, though he couldn't
be sure. He waited for Great-uncle Oswald to become aware of it. It did
not take long.
"What shamelessness is this?" The old man's face darkened, and
his white brows gnashed fiercely together.
Never one to overlook an opportunity, Gideon wrapped his arm around her
waist. It was a delightful waist, he decided, soft and inviting, with
the most appealing curves above and below. She stiffened under his clasp.
"Unhand my great-niece, you unshaven lout!" roared Great-uncle
The unshaven lout ignored him and hugged the great-niece a little tighter
around the waist. He leered down at her.
Great-uncle Oswald gobbled like an enraged turkey. Flushing, Prudence
wriggled out of Gideon's grip, pushed his hands away, and stammered an
"Great-uncle Oswald, I'd like to present you to the Duke of Dinstable."
She cast Gideon a minatory glance. "Your Grace, this is my great-uncle,
Sir Oswald Merridew."
Abandoning his pose as vile seducer, Gideon bowed correctly. "Your
servant, Sir Oswald."
Sir Oswald gibbered silently, shocked. "YouYour Grace. So it
was true, then. But . . . you surely cannot be the blackguard who has
cozened my niece in such a havey-cavey way!"
"I expect I must be," Gideon said meekly. "Does it seem
havey-cavey to you? I confess, it never occurred to me. Although blackguard
does seem a trifle harsh. Rascal, I might accept, even scallywag, and
unshaven lout, certainly, since I have been out all night." He passed
a rueful hand across his roughened jaw. "But blackguard? Surely not."
In the face of this barefaced provocation, Sir Oswald resumed his gobbling.
"What the devil does my great-niece mean to you, sir?" he demanded.
Aware that Miss Merridew was holding her breath anxiously, Gideon hesitated,
then cast her a soulful look. "I cannot say," he replied truthfully.
After all, he knew almost nothing about her, except that her lips tasted
delicious. He heard her exhale in relief and smiled to himself. Did the
girl really think he would denounce her? When he was having so much fun?
"Do you deny that you have extracted from her a promise?"
"I could deny it, I suppose, but I doubt you would believe me."
He sighed plaintively.
"Disgraceful! Especially for a man of your position. Y'must have
known the girl was too young to be allowed to make a promise like that
without the knowledge of her guardian!"
Gideon glanced at Prudence and shrugged. "She does not seem too young
"Blast it, mansixteen is far too young!"
Gideon stared at Prudence in shock. "You cannot be only sixteen!
I do not believe it! You look, er, much more mature" His eyes
dropped to the evidence of her maturity.
"Do not prevaricate with me, man! I am talkin' about four and a half
years ago, as you very well know!"
"Four and a half years ago?" Gideon repeated blankly.
Prudence, observing his hesitation, stepped into the breach. "When
we became betrothed, of course. You must have known I was sixteen at
"Must I?" He grinned. "How?"
"We discussed it at the time," she replied with composure.
"You have forgotten."
"Ah yes, I must have been thinking of other things at the time,"
he agreed, adding softly. "So, that means you must be, what?add
four and a half to sixteenmore than twenty now? Such a great age.
No wonder Great-uncle Oswald is desperate to fire you off! Almost on the
shelf, as you are."
She narrowed her eyes at him and her fists clenched as if she itched to
box his ears. She was utterly delightful, thought Gideon, enjoying himself
"But you are a duke!" Sir Oswald thundered. "Why wait four
years if you wanted the girl?"
"Why indeed?" Gideon poured himself another cognac. "Brandy,
"Poisonin' your innards with brandy? At this hour of the morning?
Disgraceful!" Sir Oswald turned puce.
"Ah yes, Miss Merridew did warn me. Tea for you, then, " agreed
Gideon gently and waved a hand toward the teapot. "Or shall I ring
for a fresh pot?"
With visible difficulty, Sir Oswald harnessed his outrage and moderated
his tone. "No, no. Nothin' to drink, I thank you. What I am tryin'
to understand," he said, "is why all the secrecy and creepin'
Gideon raised his eyebrows. "Have I been creepin' around," he
asked Prudence in a tone of dread. "How very peculiar of me."
Though she primmed her mouth at him, a dimple betrayed her. She was enchanting,
caught like this between amusement and outrage.
Sir Oswald persisted. "You know what I mean, blast it! If you wanted
the gel, you must have known your suit would be looked on favorablydammit,
you are a duke, after all, even if you do dress like a shag bag!"
Gideon looked affronted. "A shag bag?" He glanced ruefully
down at his disheveled clothing, sighed, and turned a pair of mournful
eyes on Prudence. "I creep about, and I dress like a shag bag. Are
you sure you still wish to be betrothed to me, my dear?"
"No! Not at all," Prudence snapped in exasperation. The interview
was not going at all as she had planned it. She should have taken control
of the conversation much earlier, only her brain seemed to have seized
up for a moment after that kiss. Several moments, in fact. Instead of
concentrating on the matter at hand, her wretched mind kept sliding back
to relive that scandalous kiss. Even her lips still seemed to tingle from
She was in command of herself now, but in the meantime the situation had
galloped out of control. If only this wretched duke would stop his nonsense
and let her enact the role she had spent half the night rehearsing, it
would all be sorted out by now. Instead he seemed to be having a high
old time of it.
"Enough of this shilly-shallyin' around!" snapped Great-uncle
Oswald. "I want an answernow! Why did you not come to speak
to her guardian, like an honest man?"
Prudence opened her mouth to explain.
"Be silent, gel! I want to hear it from him, demmit! He has spent
long enough avoidin' the question!" He turned to the duke. "Come,
sirrah! Explain! Why did you not ask for her handopenlylike
There was a short silence as the duke considered the question. Prudence
held her breath.
"I was shy," said six foot one of bashful male.
©Anne Gracie 2005
Sensation Historical Romance