Otley, Yorkshire 1817
“I shall never marry,” Prudence Watson declared to her sister as they crossed a busy Yorkshire street. “Men are cads, all of them. They toy with our hearts. Then they brush us aside as if we were no more than a crumb of cake at teatime. A passing fancy. A sweet morsel enjoyed for a moment and soon forgotten.”
“Enough, Prudence,” her sister pleaded. “You make me quite hungry, and you know we are late to tea.”
“Hungry?” A glance revealed the twitch of mirth on Mary’s lips. Prudence frowned. “You think me silly.”
“Dearest Pru, you are silly.” Mary raised her wool collar e against the cold, misty drizzle. “One look at you announces it to all the world. You’re far too curly-haired, pink-cheeked, and blue-eyed to be taken seriously.”
“I cannot help my cheeks and curls, nor have they anything to do with my resolve to remain unmarried.”
“But they have everything to do with the throng of eligible men clamoring to fill your dance card at every ball. Your suitors send flowers and ask you to walk in the gardens. On the days you take callers, they stand elbow to elbow in the foyer. It is really too much. Surely one of them must be rewarded with your hand.”
“No,” Prudence vowed. “I shall not marry. I intend to follow the example of my friend Betsy.”
“Elizabeth Fry is long wed and the mother of too many children to count.”
“But she obeys a calling far higher than matrimony.”
“Rushing in and out of prisons with blankets and porridge?
Is that your friend’s high calling?”
“Indeed it is, Mary. Betsy is a crusader. With God’s help, she intends to better the lives of the poor women in Newgate.”
“Better the lives of soiled doves, pickpockets, and tavern maids?” Mary scoffed. “I should like to see that.”
“And so you will, for I have no doubt of Betsy’s success. I shall succeed, too, when God reveals my mission. I mean to be an advocate for the downtrodden. I shall champion those less fortunate than I.”
“You are hardly fortunate yourself, Pru. You would do better to marry a rich man and redeem the world by bringing up moral, godly, well-behaved children.”
“Do not continue to press me on that issue, Mary, I beg you. My mind is set. I have loved and lost. I cannot bear another agony so great.”
“Do you refer to that man more than twice your age? the Tiverton blacksmith? Mr…Mr. Walker?”
Prudence tried to ignore the disdain in Mary’s voice. They were nearing the inn at which they had taken lodging in the town of Otley. Their eldest sister, Sarah, had prescribed a tour of the north country, declaring Yorkshire’s wild beauty the perfect antidote to downtrodden spirits. Thus far, Prudence reflected, the journey had not achieved its aim.
Now, Mary had raised again the subject of great torment to Prudence. It was almost as though she enjoyed mocking her younger sister’s passion for a man she could never wed. Whatever anyone thought of him, Prudence decided, she would defend her love with valor and tenacity.
“Mr. Walker is a gentleman,” she insisted. “A gentleman of the first order.”
“Nonsense,” Mary retorted. “He has no title, no land, no home, no education, nothing. How can you call him a gentleman?”
“Of course he has no title --- he is an American!” Annoyed, Prudence lifted her skirts as she approached a large puddle in the street. “Americans have no peerage. By law, they are all equal.”
“Equally common. Equally ordinary. Equally low.” Mary rolled her eyes. “Honestly, Pru, you can do far better than Mr. Walker. Sarah and I hold the opinion that her nephew, Henry Carlyle, Lord Delacroix, would suit you very well indeed. She writes that he is returned from India much improved from their last acquaintance. Delacroix owns a fine home in London and another in the country. He is wealthy, handsome, and titled. In short, the perfect catch. Leave everything to your sisters, Pru. We shall make it all come about.”
“You will do nothing of the sort! Delacroix is a foolish, reckless cad. I would not marry him if he were the last man in England.”
Annoyed, Prudence stepped onto a narrow plank, a makeshift bridge someone had laid across the puddle. Attempting to steady herself, she did not notice a ragged boy dart from an alleyway. He splashed into the muddy water, snatched the velvet reticule at her waist, and fled.
“Oh!” she cried out.
The plank tilted. Prudence tipped. Her balance shifted. In a pouf of white petticoats, she tottered backward until she could do nothing but unceremoniously seat herself in the center of the dirty pool. Mud splattered across her blue cape and pink skirt as she sprawled out, legs askew and one slipper floating in the muck.
“Dear lady!” A man knelt beside her. “Are you injured? Please allow me to assist you.”
She looked into eyes the color of warm treacle. A tumble of dark curls fell over his brow. Angled cheekbones were echoed in the squared jut of his jaw. It was the face of an angel. Her guardian angel.
“My bag,” she sputtered. “The boy took it.”
“My man has gone after him. Have no fear on that account. But what of you? Can you stand? May I not help you?”
He held out a hand sheathed in a brown kid glove. Prudence reached for it, but Mary intervened.
“You are mud from head to toe, Pru!” She blocked the stranger’s hand. “You must try to get up on your own. We are near the inn, and we shall find you a clean gown at once.”
“Hang my gown!” Prudence retorted. “Give me your hand, sister, or allow this gentleman to aid me. My entire…undercarriage is wet.”
At this, the man’s lips curved into a grin. “Do accept my offer of assistance, dear lady, and I shall wrap my cloak about you…you and your damp undercarriage.” The motley crowd gathered on the street were laughing and elbowing one another at the sight of a fine lady seated in a puddle. Prudence had endured quite enough derision and mockery for one day. She set her muddy hand in the gentleman’s palm. He slipped his free hand under her arm and helped her rise. Before she could bemoan her disheveled state, he swept the thick wool cloak from his shoulders and laid it across her own.
“My name is Sherbourne,” he said as he led her toward the inn. “William Sherbourne of Otley.”
“I am Prudence Watson. Of London.”
Utterly miserable, she realized a truth far worse than a muddy gown, a missing slipper, and a tender undercarriage. She was crying. Crying first because she had been assaulted. Second because her bag was stolen away. Third because she was covered in cold, sticky mud. Fourth and every other number because Mr. Walker had abandoned her. He had declared he loved Prudence too much to make her his wife. He kissed her hand. He bade her farewell. And she had neither seen nor heard from him since.
“You will catch pneumonia,” Mary cried as she hastened ahead of them to open the inn’s door. “Oh, Pru, you will have a fever by sunset and we shall bleed you and care for you and you will die anyway, just like my dear Mr. Heathhill, who left me a widow.”
“Upon my word, madam,” William spoke up. “I would never lay out such a fate for a woman so young and lovely. Miss Watson is hardly bound for an early grave. Do refrain from such predictions, I beg you.”
“Oh, Mary, his rose was in my reticule,” Prudence moaned. “The rose Mr. Walker gave me. I pressed it and vowed to keep it forever. And now it is lost.”
“Your husband?” William asked. He helped her ascend the stairs and escorted her into the inn. “Give me his name, and I shall alert him to your distress.”
“She has no husband,” Mary informed him. “We are both unmarried, for I am recently a widow.”
“Do accept my sincere condolences.”
“Thank you, sir. But we have not been properly introduced. I am Mrs. John Heathhill of Cranleigh Crescent in London.”
“William Sherbourne of Otley, at your service.” He made a crisp bow. “You are Miss Watson’s sister?”
“Yes,” Prudence cut in, “and if she will stop chattering for once, I shall welcome her attention. Mary, come with me, for I am shivering.”
“Heavens! That is exactly how the influenza began with my dear late husband!”
Mary took her sister’s arm and stepped toward the narrow staircase.
“Thank you, Mr. Sherbourne. We are in your debt.”
“Think nothing of it,” he replied. “I wish you a speedy recovery and excellent health, Miss Watson. Good afternoon, ladies.”
Excerpted from THE COURTEOUS CAD: Miss Pickworth, Book Three © Copyright 2011 by Catherine Palmer. Reprinted with permission by Tyndale House Publishers. All rights reserved.