Prudence halted so abruptly that her cousin Netta, chattering busily about her plans for the following day, did not immediately realise that she had walked on alone. She turned round to find Prudence searching anxiously through the packages she was holding.
'Pru, have you dropped something?' she asked with a hint of impatience in her tone.
'Netta, I think I must have left those silks in the shop which your mama particularly asked me to match. I shall have to go back for them.'
'No, you didn't. I have them here,' the young girl replied. 'Really, Pru – anyone with a less appropriate name than yours would be difficult to find!'
Prudence grinned ruefully at her.
'Dear Netta! Even at twelve you are far more reliable than I at nineteen. What a comfort you must be to Aunt Lavinia,' she added as she started to walk on.
'I'm not sure I am,' Netta said thoughtfully. 'When I remind her about things such as asking Cook why the meat costs so much, or why we use so many candles in the kitchen, she seems to develop a headache. That's not comfortable for her. Oh, Pru, look at that pair of greys!' she added enthusiastically, pointing to two superb, high-stepping horses trotting briskly towards them, drawing a smart phaeton in which rode two elegant young men. Netta was already an accomplished rider and currently it was her dearest wish to own a pair of carriage horses.
As she spoke the driver slowed the horses to a walk, and drawing level with the girls gestured with his whip towards the houses on the near side of the square.
'That's the house she's taken, if you please!' he said in a clear voice, but his further remarks were drowned by a sharp crack and the sound of shattering glass.
One of the greys shied, and then, further startled by a small boy running directly in front of his nose, did his best to drag the phaeton round in a circle.
Grimly silent, and with an admirable display of strength and skill, the driver soon had him under control.
'Pray take the ribbons a while,' he said curtly, handing the reins and his whip to his companion, and leaped purposefully down into the road. He strode across to where two boys, aged about eight and six, the elder carrying a cricket bat, were shamefacedly surveying the broken window in front of them.
'You!' the man said peremptorily, grasping the younger boy by the shoulder. 'Haven't you the wit not to startle a horse by running straight in front of it? I'll teach you not to do it again!' he added, and twisting the boy so that the appropriate part of his anatomy presented itself, raised his other hand in readiness to deliver chastisement.
He found his wrist gripped with small but determined hands.
'No, you fiend! Leave him alone! He's still a baby!' Prudence gasped, finding it took all her strength to restrain that avenging hand.
He looked angrily down at her, but the fury in his eyes abated as he encountered the determined look in hers, and he released the child the better to look at her, his dark eyes twinkling in amusement.
She was well worth his scrutiny. Though of small stature, barely reaching his shoulder, she was exquisitely formed, and her face was as charming as her figure. Huge eyes of gentian blue were blazing angrily at him. They were wide set in a delicate, heart-shaped face, framed by a mop of unruly dark curls. Her lips, parted now and revealing small white teeth, were full and rosy.
Before he could speak he found his other arm grasped by even smaller hands, and found both small boys tugging furiously at him, the younger aiming desperate kicks at his legs.
'Let Pru go!' the older boy gasped, oblivious to the fact that it was Prudence who was hanging on to their attacker, not the other way round.
'Outnumbered, by George!' the man in the phaeton said with a laugh, and Prudence, realising what she was doing, flushed in acute embarrassment and stepping hastily backwards.
'James, Harry, let go,' she ordered hurriedly. 'Look, there is Mr Kennedy's butler. Go and apologise at once for breaking his window. As for you, sir,' she added with dignity, 'you should be ashamed of yourself, attacking a small child in such a vicious way.'
She turned on her heel and, amused, he watched her march away to join the two boys, now with hanging heads, standing to receive the angry recriminations of an elderly manservant. She gave no indication of how disturbed she had been by the encounter, forcing her trembling limbs to carry her steadily, and telling herself sternly that the wild pounding of her heart was due to the fury she felt at his treatment of little Harry.
'Foiled, Richard, my lad,' his friend said softly. 'Damned fine gal despite her size. That's one whose heart you won't easily break.'
He turned to mount into the phaeton and retrieve the reins.
'Is that a wager? It's a tempting one. I'm bored and the Season's hardly begun.'
'A hundred pounds you cannot bring her to heel within a month.'
'Done! A further meeting must be arranged, Edward. I have a preference for spirited damsels, the more so since I made the acquaintance of my cousin. Come, let's go and break a bottle to seal our bargain.'
They drove off, unaware of Netta standing beside the phaeton and watching them with narrowed eyes.
Prudence, her colour still high, pacified the elderly butler with a promise of sending a man round at once to repair the broken window, and bore off the two chastened boys. Netta, her expression thoughtful, gathered up the packages Prudence had scattered around her when flying to Harry's rescue, and then forgotten, and followed them into the house.
Having despatched the boys to the schoolroom, they found Lady Frome reclining on a chaise longue in the drawing room. She was entertaining two visitors, Prudence's married sister Sarah and her friend Mrs Jane Buxton.
Lavinia Frome was still a very pretty woman, in a rather faded way, but she enjoyed conspicuously frail health, and the least exertion fatigued her alarmingly. Her niece and daughter had not needed to consult together before determining to mention no word to her of what had passed in the square.
Netta made her curtsies, delivered the packages to her mother and explained that the new cards she had ordered would be ready by the following day. Then she escaped, leaving Prudence to chat with the visitors.
Sarah Barhampton was two years older than Prudence, a taller and paler version of her sister. She had made a very good marriage when only eighteen to a man fifteen years her senior, who was rich, doting and in daily expectation of inheriting his father's estates.
'Augustus has returned to Sussex,' Sarah was explaining to her aunt. 'His poor father is sinking rapidly, and although I did not wish to leave them he insisted that I came to town, for you know how the sight of suffering disturbs me. I made him promise to send for me if I could be of any assistance, but he told me I must not fret, but was to go about as usual while I can. We shall have to put on our blacks very soon, I fear. Until then, however, if you are unwell, Aunt Lavinia, I can escort Prudence to parties.'
'How kind of you, my dear, but I shall make an effort to go myself. We must do our best to find a good match for her this year. Such a pity we had to postpone her coming out last Season, but I really was not able to face it after both the boys and then Netta succumbing one after the other to the measles. I was worried Prudence herself would catch it, and if she had done so right in the middle of the Season it would have been disastrous.'
'I had them when I was ten, Aunt,' Prudence said mildly, but her aunt did not appear to be listening, she was too anxious to compliment Mrs Buxton on her gown, and ask where she had acquired the matching, deep-brimmed hat.
That topic exhausted, Lady Frome suddenly recalled the news given to her by an earlier visitor.
'Sarah, I almost forget to tell you. Lady Carstaires was here an hour since, and she has it on the best authority that Lord Mottesford's widow is coming to town this year, and has actually taken a house here in the square. I wonder what she is like?'
'Have you never met her?' Mrs Buxton asked. 'I thought his estates were in Devon, and as you lived there as a girl you might have done so.'
'We lived at the opposite end of the county, and although my dear parents knew him slightly I scarcely saw him. They did not like him, he was such an evil-tempered old man. My sister, Prudence's mother, who was of course much older than I am, said he used to snub people unmercifully when he was offended with them. Then he was such a recluse after his first wife died, and as that was in my first Season I remember very little of him. I believe he married the second Lady Mottesford only a few months before he died. No one knows who she is, but she is rumoured to be a horridly vulgar person.'
'I suppose she is trying to marry off her stepdaughter,' Sarah said musingly.
'Well, we need have nothing to do with her even if she is a neighbour,' Lady Frome said comfortingly. 'What is the new Lord Mottesford like?'
'I haven't met him,' Mrs Buxton replied, 'but Mr Buxton knew him at Eton. He's thirty, and very wealthy. His father made a fortune and his mother was a great heiress, so he won't be in need of Dicky Mottesford's money.'
'He's not married, is he?'
'No, he's been in the army since he left school, and sold out when he inherited the title last year. I understand he has been living on his own estates in Worcestershire since then, but he is bound to come to town soon. What a catch for someone! My husband says he is tall and handsome as well as being rich, although he kept somewhat aloof from the other boys at Eton, apart from his own particular cronies.'
Prudence, losing interest in this paragon who sounded both arrogant and dull, began to wonder who the man in the phaeton was and whether she would encounter him again. Her cheeks burned at the notion, and at the recollection of her unmaidenly behaviour in actually clinging to his arm.
At last Sarah and Mrs Buxton rose to depart, after inviting Prudence to walk with them in the Park on the following day. Lady Frome, saying in a weak voice that she was too fatigued to receive any more visitors that day and would rest until dinner, sent Prudence away. With considerable relief she was able to retreat to her bedroom.
She had been there scarcely five minutes when Netta tapped on the door.
'May I come in? Pru, did you hear what that abominable man said?' she demanded as she threw herself full length on to the bed, an action which would have scandalised her governess if that lady could have seen her.
'What do you mean?' Prudence asked, quickly rescuing the gown she had just laid on the bed, and which she had been about to trim with new ribbons.
'That man who was going to beat Harry. I thought you were splendid,' she added fervently. 'So brave and fearless.'
'I was too angry to be afraid, and in any event what was there to be afraid of? He would scarcely have beaten me!'
'No, but he laid a wager with the other man!' Netta disclosed importantly.
'A wager? What about?'
'Netta, don't be so irritating! Tell me what they said, at once!'
'Well, the other man said that he would not be able to break your heart, and he bet a hundred pounds he would bring you to heel in a month!' Netta related.
Prudence stared at her in horrified amazement.
'They laid a bet on that? Are you sure?'
'Of course I'm sure. I was standing right beside him when he got back to the phaeton, and I heard it all quite plainly. I wonder what he means to do? How can he break your heart when you don't even know him? And what could he mean by saying he would bring you to heel?'
'I haven't the faintest notion, apart from knowing it is all exceedingly vulgar, and just what I should have expected of such an odious man!' Prudence said vehemently.
'You expected him to make a wager about you?' Netta demanded in astonishment.
'No, of course not! Not that, but just his behaviour in general, which is far from being gentlemanly.'
'Well, you know now, so you can avoid him,' Netta remarked complacently. 'Wasn't it a good thing I listened?'
'I won't even speak to him, even if I do see him again,' Prudence vowed.
'Good. There's another thing, though, which Biddy told me.'
'One of the housemaids. She says that the new people next door arrived while we were out. An elderly woman with two daughters, she thought, very fashionably dressed. Perhaps you will meet them at parties.'
'Did she also know their name? Aunt Lavinia said this morning she did not know who was coming, but the Frintons were renting out the house again this year.'
'Biddy did not know, but she is friendly with the Frintons' kitchen maid, and she will tell me tomorrow.'
'You oughtn't to gossip with the servants,' Prudence said with belated caution, but Netta grinned impishly at her.
'How else can I discover what goes on?' she asked in a reasonable tone. 'Mama thinks I am too young to be told everything, and Papa isn't in the least interested in what he calls frivolity. All he cares about is boring debates in Parliament or talking with his cronies at his clubs. You know he hardly ever goes out with Mama, unless it is some special occasion which he thinks will be of use to him politically.'
Prudence considered her cousin. Netta was a sturdy, plain child, taking after her father in looks, with no promise of the ethereal although faded beauty of her mother. It was clear that at the moment she had no idea she also took after him in other ways, with her down to earth, outspoken common sense, and lack of sensibility in her comments on other people. She would have rejected with scorn the very suggestion that she had more in common with his political activities than the social round which occupied her mother, when Lady Frome was feeling strong enough to face that.
'Shall we ride in the Park before breakfast?' Prudence suggested now, and Netta agreed enthusiastically.
Long before her mother was awake, therefore, on the following morning, Netta and her cousin were cantering in an almost deserted Park, attended by Woodward, an elderly groom who had taught both of them to ride. He restrained Netta when she suggested a gallop, telling her that she would be breaking one of the rules if she did, and although she pouted she obeyed.
'Do hurry up and get married, Pru,' she said with a sigh. 'Then we can go back to Horton Grange and I can gallop on the downs as much as I please.'
Prudence laughed. 'I've no intention of marrying just to please you, Miss! And I shall take my time choosing. I insist on any husband being rich and amiable as well as handsome. He must adore me and be ready to do everything I want.'
'Have you anyone in mind yet?' Netta asked with a giggle. 'I cannot say I know anyone with all those virtues. At least you won't be tempted by him!' she added in a different, angry tone, indicating with her whip, and Prudence looked to where she pointed.
The man from yesterday was riding towards them, mounted on a magnificent black horse. He was alone and Prudence, before she recollected herself, thought how splendid he looked in his severe, military-style coat.
She swung away down a side path before he reached them, her heart thumping uncomfortably loudly in her breast. To her intense relief he did not attempt either to follow or to greet them, and after a while she began to breathe more easily.
'Shall we go home now?' Netta asked, and Prudence, reluctant to run the risk of meeting him if they made another circuit of the Park, willingly agreed.
They reached Grosvenor Square a few minutes later, and dismounted outside their door. Woodward was taking the reins of their horses, preparatory to leading them round to the mews, when the door of the house next door opened and a yapping, bustling ball of animated fluff hurled itself down the steps and began a furious attack on the heels of the horses.
It was all Woodward could do to retain his seat and hold on to the other horses, who were tugging in fruitless efforts to escape the attentions of the dog. Prudence and Netta instinctively stepped forward to help Woodward by taking the reins, just as a young girl, weeping hysterically, threw herself into the melee and tried to pull the dog from under the horses' hooves.
This sudden eruption completed the chaos. Netta's mare, a spirited but nervous creature, reared, dragging Nctta off balance. Prudence grabbed at the mare as Netta stumbled, fell sideways, and, as the horses were brought under control, lay frighteningly still.