Hampshire, June 1862
It was a beautiful fresh summer’s morning, the sun beaming down from a cloudless sky as Prudence Carstairs set out on the well-trodden path towards her destination. Though she wore her ubiquitous wide-brimmed bonnet, the risk of meeting anyone on this short walk was minimal enough to allow her to leave off the detachable veil and enjoy the fresh, unfiltered air. Her gown of peacock blue Indian cotton printed with delicate floral sprays and twisted woody stems matched the bright promise of the day. The fabric was a gift from her sister Mercy, but the design was all her own, the neckline high, the gown free from fashionable ruffles, sashes and swags. Such furbelows offended Prudence’s preference for clean lines. Her undergarments were her one indulgence. Though she wore only one petticoat, it was striped silk with a deep scalloped hem. Her steel-hooped crinoline had lately arrived from London, and was the very latest flat-fronted model. Thanks to her own minor modifications, it swayed easily as she trod lightly along, humming quietly to herself
The gates to Hawthorn Manor sat permanently open, one of them lying at a drunken angle against the gatepost where the hinge had given way. The scrolled wrought iron was rusted through in places, the family crest almost indecipherable. Refurbishing them was one of the many tasks on the long list of renovations and improvements for the gardens which remained undone.
The sweep of the driveway brought the house into view, and Prudence took her wide-brimmed bonnet off with relief, a ritual she had instigated when the house had been closed up, and which never failed to lighten her mood. Hawthorn Manor was built in the classic English style, parts of it dating back almost three hundred years. Four years ago it had been in a dreadful state. Now, after an enormous amount of hard work, it had not only been restored but completely modernised too. She had been looking forward to seeing the gardens similarly transformed, but the ambitious plans to restore and replant, to re-design and to renovate were all now in limbo.
Rather like herself. She turned the heavy key in the lock of the front door and entered the cool, stone-flagged hall. Setting her basket down, she was in the process of hanging up her bonnet when she noticed a coat occupying her usual peg on the rack. Her hat fell unnoticed to the ground as she gazed in astonishment at the trespassing garment, an overcoat made of dark-blue wool. Tentatively, she touched it as if it might be a figment of her imagination, but it was real enough, much worn, the lining torn, but of good quality, for the tarnished buttons were almost certainly silver.
Her heart began to race. The door had been locked, but it was well-known locally that that the Manor was unoccupied. Would a housebreaker brazenly hang up his coat while he searched for loot? A crash, followed by the muffled sound of a man swearing made her jump in fear, stifling a scream. She was already in panicked retreat, half-way back towards the front door before she managed to stop herself. Hawthorn Manor was in her care, albeit an unofficial curatorship.
Forcing herself into action, blanking her mind to the potential dangers, Prudence began to creep up the stairs, step by tentative step. The noise seemed to be coming from the bathroom, an opulent room which she had designed and which had been created in one of the smaller bedrooms which lay across the hall from the master suite. Listening intently, she could hear the distinctive spatter of the shower which was positioned over the bath.
‘What on earth?’ Prudence muttered under her breath, as she heard the protesting squeal of the taps. Whatever the intruder was doing, he would have his back to her, giving her a very small advantage. Garnering her courage, she rushed towards the bathroom and flung open the door.
The man whirled around, and Prudence shrieked. He was tall, extremely forbidding and wholly naked. His hair was long, reaching down to his shoulders, and raven black. A thick beard of the same colour covered most of his face, and a smattering of hair was sprinkled over his very broad and muscled chest which was tanned walnut brown. The tan stopped in a line just below his narrow waist. Her eyes travelled lower in shocked fascination until she got a glimpse of – a hastily grabbed towel.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing barging in on me like this. Can’t you see I’m trying to take a bath.’
Jerking her head up, her cheeks blazing, Prudence encountered a gaze that was both furious and incredulous. The eyes, beneath brows drawn together into a heavy frown, were the deep blue of a summer sky. ‘This is private property,’ she said, striving to inject some authority into her trembling voice. ‘I have no idea how you managed to get in, but…’
‘Through the front door.’ Cursing viciously under his breath, he tied the towel more securely around his waist. ‘What I want to know is how you got in?’
‘I have a key,’ Prudence retorted, astounded by his effrontery.
The pipes clanged again, and a fresh deluge of water sprayed from the shower. ‘Damn this infernal contraption.’
‘It is not an infernal contraption, it is a very expensive shower bath of the latest design. For goodness sake get out of the way.’ It was the work of a moment to make the plumbing safe, but sufficient to thoroughly soak her hair. ‘There, it’s not difficult, if you know what you are doing,’ Prudence said, retreating to the door once more.
‘Are you the housekeeper? I was informed that the place was empty.’
‘Which explains your brazen behaviour.’
His response, to her astonishment, was a rumble of laughter. ‘I certainly wouldn’t have attempted to take a bath if I’d known you were going to burst in on me. Are you going to try to arrest me? I assure you, it would be a big mistake.’
His manner unsettled her. This man, a complete stranger with unkempt hair and a ragged beard, was acting as if she were the intruder, and not he. His tan was not the type to have been acquired under the English sun, yet his accent was indisputably English, and educated. ‘What do you mean, a mistake? This is private property. You have no right…’
‘I have every right. I also have a set of keys.’
‘Where did you get them?’ she asked, highly suspicious.
‘From Mr Lionel Doncaster, of Doncaster and Sons.’
‘From Jeremy’s lawyer?’
‘My lawyer, for the time being, at least. One of many things I appear to have inherited.’
Inherited! Prudence stared dumbfounded at the stranger. ‘Who are you?’
‘I am Jeremy’s brother, if by Jeremy, you mean the Sixth Earl.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous, Jeremy didn’t have a brother.’
‘I assure you he did. The lawyer was as surprised as you, but he was forced to change his tune when he saw my papers.’
‘But that’s not possible.’ Prudence continued to stare, too astounded to care about the fact he was wearing nothing but a towel. ‘You don’t look anything like Jeremy.’
‘Since I have no recollection of ever seeing him, either fully clothed or naked, you have the advantage of me.’
‘I have never seen Jeremy naked! I have no idea what you are implying…’
‘I’m not implying anything,’ the man snapped. ‘I am simply trying to establish who you are and what you’re doing here.’
‘My name is Prudence Carstairs, and what I’m doing is looking after this property.’
‘Prudence’ He gave a crack of laughter. ‘You were very badly named, for you are neither prudish, since you’re having a conversation with a half-naked man, nor indeed prudent, if you really do believe me to be a housebreaker.’
‘What else was I to think, when I saw your coat on the rack?’
‘You thought a housebreaker would hang up his coat and then take a leisurely bath before plundering the contents of the house?’
‘It is common knowledge that the Manor is unoccupied,’ Prudence said defensively, for that was precisely what she had thought. ‘For all I know, you might have been planning on spending the night here.’
‘Then perhaps it would be prudent for you to seek assistance in ejecting me, Mrs Carstairs, for that is exactly what I plan to do, since the house belongs to me.’
‘It is Miss Carstairs, and how do I know you are who you claim to be?’
He indicated the towel wrapped around his waist. ‘I really don’t want to have a debate about the laws of inheritance while I’m…’
He broke off suddenly, and too late, she realised that her face was completely exposed. Worse, she was positioned in the full glare of the sunshine. Her hand flew to her cheek confirming that her carefully arranged hair had been displaced when she was shutting off the shower, exposing her scar to the unforgiving light, making her feel as naked as he. She never exposed her face like this to anyone, save her closest family. Frantically, she tried to pat her damp hair back into position.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I didn’t mean to stare.’ Contrary to her expectations, however, the man looked neither horrified nor embarrassed. Nor did he avert his eyes. ‘A very old injury, by the looks of it,’ he said.
She wished she had kept her bonnet on. She ought not to have let her guard down and got into the habit of assuming she was safe here from unwelcome attention. Prudence turned her face to the side, still frantically trying to re-arrange her hair over her face. ‘A childhood accident.’
‘You needn’t be embarrassed Miss Carstairs, I’ve seen a great deal worse.’
He spoke gently enough, but her hackles rose. ‘In a freak show at a fair, do you mean?’ To her horror, she found herself on the verge of tears. It had been so long since anyone had seen her laid bare, and it was her own careless fault. ‘Is that supposed to make me feel better.’
His expression darkened. ‘I meant on a battlefield.’
‘Oh.’ Momentarily distracted from her mortification, she wondered if this accounted for his unkempt appearance. ‘Have you just returned from a campaign?’
‘Not unless you count the battle I have been fighting with the lawyer over the last few months to establish my claim.’
‘I’m not surprised he was sceptical. We have always thought – I mean everyone thought, including Jeremy, that he was an only child.’
‘Yet here I am, in the flesh.’ The man whose name she didn’t yet know looked down at this point, grimacing. ‘Rather too much flesh. Fascinating as this discussion may be, I am at a decided disadvantage. If you will excuse me, I will put some clothes on before we continue.’
Prudence was about to gratefully seize the opportunity to remedy her own feeling of nakedness, when it occurred to her that he might simply be intending to escape.
I have no intentions of absconding,’ he said, seeing her hesitate. ‘All I crave is a bath and a bed, and since I assume you are not going to allow me either of those until you have assured yourself I won’t make off with the family silver…’
‘It’s safely ensconced in a bank vault in London,’ she said, deciding that whether he made off or not, she had to retrieve her bonnet. ‘I will wait for you in the parlour. That is downstairs, the first door…’
‘I will find it.’
Prudence backed out, managing to whisk her skirts out of the way just in time as the door slammed shut. Shaking, she stood for a moment, trying to collect her wits, to no avail. It was not yet noon, but the occasion, she decided, called for a stiff drink.
Back to The Earl Who Sees Her Beauty