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Authors: Deborah Simmons

the devil earl

Table of Contents

Cover Page

Excerpt

Dear Reader

Title Page

Books by Deborah Simmons

About the Author

Dedication

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Epilogue

Copyright

“Stop looking as though you expect me to drag you off and ravish you,”

the earl said softly.

The words were spoken in an amused tone, and yet his gray gaze had not softened, and the way he said “ravish” made Prudence blink behind her spectacles.

“Oh, my!” she whispered, half to herself, as she snapped open her fan. “I beg your pardon if I have been gaping at you oddly, my lord.” She fanned herself rapidly. “I am not sure what has come over me lately. It is rather warm in here, is it not?”

“Undoubtedly,” Ravenscar agreed, his appealing mouth curving sensuously. “Uncomfortably warm, I would say.”

There was a wry note in his voice that made Prudence glance up at his eyes again. It was a mistake, for they swept over her anew like storm clouds racing and churning with the heady promise of lightning.

“Oh, my,” Prudence muttered again as a moment of silence as charged as his look stretched between them…

Dear Reader,

The Devil Earl
from Deborah Simmons is a delightful new Regency with a calm, sensible heroine who is determined to heal the wounded soul of the dark and brooding Earl of Ravenscar, the inspiration for the heroes in her popular Gothic novels. And be sure to keep an eye out for Deborah’s new medieval novel,
Maiden Bride,
coming in September.

Also out this month, the third book in award-winning author Theresa Michaels’s Kincaid Trilogy,
Once a Lawman,
features the oldest Kincaid brother, a small-town sheriff who must choose between family and duty as he works to finally bring to justice the criminals who’ve been plaguing his family’s ranch.

Miranda Jarrett’s hero, Captain Nick Sparhawk, is tormented by a meddlesome angel bent on matchmaking in
Sparhawk’s Angel,
which
Romantic Times
calls “delightful, unforgettably funny and supremely touching.” And an indentured servant is torn between her affection for her good-hearted master and her growing love for the rugged frontiersman who is guiding them to a new life in the territories in Ana Seymour’s new Western,
Frontier Bride.

We hope you will enjoy all four titles, and come back for more. Please keep a lookout for Hartequin Historicals, available wherever books are sold.

Sincerely,

Tracy Farrell
Senior Editor

Please address questions and book requests to:

Hartequin Reader Service

U.S.: 3010 Walden Ave., P.O. Box 1325, Buffalo, NY 14269

Canadian: P.O. Box 609, Fort Erie, Ont. L2A 5X3

 
The Devil Earl
 
Deborah Simmons

Books by Deborah Simmons

Hartequin Historicals

Fortune Hunter
#132

Silent Heart #185

The Squire’s Daughter
#208

The Devil’s Lady
#241

The Vicar’s Daughter
#258

Taming the Wolf #284

The Devil Earl #317

DEBORAH SIMMONS

began her writing career as a newspaper reporter. She turned to fiction after the birth of her first child when a long-time love of historical romance prompted her to pen her own work, published in 1989. She lives with her husband, two children and two cats in rural Ohio, where she divides her time between her family, reading and writing. She enjoys hearing from readers at the address below. For a reply, an SASE is appreciated.

Deborah Simmons
P.O. Box 274
Ontario, OH 44862-0274

This book is dedicated to Lynn Dominick,
Deb Jeffers, Marie Mattingly and all the staff of the
Galion Public Library for their continual assistance,
support and encouragement.

Chapter One

Autumn—1818

Cornwall, England

 

The wind howled. The shutters rattled.

Millicent swooned.

The specter rose up, a chilling vision, to loom over her

prostrate form…

 

“D
rat!” Prudence muttered. Pushing her slipping spectacles back into place, she frowned at the sheet of foolscap before her. Her heroine was swooning far too frequently, and the specter very much resembled the apparition in her last book,
The Mysterious Alphorise.
Her second effort was simply not going well at all.

What she needed was…inspiration. With a sigh of frustration, Prudence gazed out the window at what had always provided her with the necessary stimulus: Wolfinger Abbey.

Of course, Mrs. Radcliffe’s novels were what had given her the courage to take up writing herself, but it was the abbey that stirred her creative spirit. It stood high up on the edge of the sea cliff, enshrouded in mist, its dark gray stone stark against the bleak sky, its towers home to the earls of Ravenscar for hundreds of years.

What secrets did it hold? Prudence had always pondered them, and even as a child she had woven tales of death and destruction, passion and murder, for the area’s most famous structure. Rumors spoke of a vast network of tunnels that lay beneath it, used by wreckers and smugglers not so long ago, but, to her great disappointment, Prudence had never found a single shaft.

When she was a young girl, she and the village children had dared each other to pass the gloomy gates or creep into the cemetery where the monks who had once walked its halls were buried. But the others had always fled, shrieking in terror, when they got close, leaving Prudence to be turned away by the aged caretaker.

Ever since, Prudence had been frustrated in her efforts to gain entry, because the abbey stood empty, for the most part, the earldom having passed to a distant relation who was more interested in the dissipations of London than in a lonely seaside residence. Life went on, bypassing Wolfinger, but it remained, a Gothic sentinel, ancient and aweinspiring. Like a standing stone, it kept its barrow of mysteries closely guarded—and waited for new blood.

A few locals claimed it was haunted by the ghosts of the sailors who had died on the rocks below, by fair means or foul; others said it was cursed by the bad blood of the Ravenscars who had dwelt there. To the fainthearted, it was macabre; to the more prosaic, an eyesore.

To Prudence, it was perfect.

She loved Wolfinger Abbey with a fierce devotion that no one else, certainly none whom she knew, could possibly comprehend. To her, the eerie edifice was the epitome of romance, adventure, excitement—all the things that were lacking in her own placid existence.

“Pru!” The shout startled her out of her contemplation, and, realizing she was nibbling on the end of her pen, Prudence promptly spit it out and turned to greet her sister.

Phoebe rushed into the morning room, pink-cheeked and charmingly breathless. Putting a dainty hand to her bosom, she stopped and stared at Prudence, her bright blue eyes wide and slightly glazed. Well accustomed to Phoebe’s theatrical tendencies, Prudence saw no cause for alarm, but simply waited for her sister to explain this sudden excitement. The answer was not long in coming.

“Oh, Pru! Pru! I have seen him, at last! Oh, be still my heart!” she whispered so dramatically that Prudence spared a moment’s concern that her sister might actually swoon.

“Him, who?” Prudence asked calmly.

The question sent Phoebe into new transports. Giving her sister an airy smile, she sank into one of the worn chairs near the hearth and sighed. “Oh, Pru! Simply the most wonderful being in the world…”

Smiling herself, Prudence knew it would be pointless to seek pertinent details at this juncture, so she simply waited and listened while Phoebe extolled the virtues of some unknown gentleman.

“He is handsome, so very handsome,” Phoebe said, dreamily lost in reflection. “And so elegant, and such fine manners! Of course, I knew him to be of noble birth at once! His education is obviously well beyond anyone’s in the confines of our small surroundings, and he must be
very
comfortable in his income.” She shot a guilty look at Prudence. “Not that such a consideration would weigh heavily with me, if it were not for all his other splendid qualities!”

“Of course,” Prudence agreed, her lips twitching with restrained laughter. “And who exactly is this paragon, or did you not gain his name?”

“Penhurst. The Honorable James Penhurst, but recently come from London.” She sighed again.

“Penhurst,” Prudence muttered. “Penhurst?” She looked over at her sister with a start of surprise. “Do not tell me that he is one of
the
Penhursts, heirs to Wolfinger Abbey?”
she asked, her own excitement rising to match her sister’s.

Phoebe frowned prettily. “Yes,” she admitted reluctantly. “He is staying
there,
but I will not have that signify, as he is not at all fond of the place and is more at home in London.”

“Phoebe! He is at the abbey? You do not mean it!” Prudence leaned forward in her seat, her spectacles slipping down her small nose with the force of her enthusiasm. “This
is
wonderful. Why, only just now I was thinking again of how I might someday see inside it. If your gentleman is staying there, then surely we can, at last, view the interior!”

Phoebe shuddered. “Ugh! I have no interest in that monstrosity,” she said. “A nice town house in London—not too big, mind you, but well situated—now that would be the thing! Oh, how I wish I could see the city, just once…”

Her fancies were lost upon Prudence, who was intent upon her own objective. “James Penhurst,” she muttered. “An honorable, did you say? Then he must be a younger son.” She paused, half-afraid to voice her hopes aloud, then plunged on. “Phoebe, is he…Ravenscar’s brother?”

“Yes, though I cannot believe it myself. He is nothing at all like the earl, I am certain of it!”

Prudence could hardly contain the unusual agitation that gripped her. If the brother was here, perhaps…Pushing her glasses back into place, Prudence sought her sister’s attention once more.

“Phoebe! Phoebe, is Ravenscar with him, at Wolfinger?” Positively tumultuous, Prudence tried to restrain herself, but she had wondered about the earl for years, making the mysterious nobleman the subject of her particular interest. To meet him after all this time would surely be the height of her existence!

Phoebe shook her head, shattering Prudence’s hopes in a careless instant. “No, and I am sure I am quite glad of it, for Mr. Penhurst did not seem at all fond of him.”

The unfamiliar thrill that had seized Prudence began to ebb away, and the wild pounding of her heart eased, returning her to her usual sensible self. With a briskness that belied her overset emotions, she sat up straighter and buried her disappointment.

“Well, then, we must gain an invitation from the Penhurst who is there. Where did you see him?”

“In the village, of all places! I had just been to the market to pick up a bit of mutton for supper, and there he was!” Phoebe’s eyes drifted shut, and Prudence hurried to finish her questions before her sister threatened to swoon again.

“How long is he staying? Dare we invite him to call?”

“Oh, Prudence, but that is what is most delightful of all!” Phoebe said. Rousing herself from her dreamy state, she leaned forward to take her sister’s hands. “He said… He said he would like to call upon me here at his earliest opportunity!”

“Well!” Prudence answered, squeezing gently in return. “That will surely do.” She listened absently while Phoebe went on and on about young Penhurst, and she made the appropriate noises when expected, but already her mind was racing ahead to the practical details of her sister’s news. The cottage needed a thorough cleaning, Cook must make up something special, and—Oh, dear! She must put by some good wine, or whatever it was that gentlemen drank.

Dropping her hands back into her lap, Prudence calculated just what was needed to receive their new visitor, and then…Then, she let herself think of how she was going to finagle an invitation from him to see Wolfinger and explore all its mysteries at last.

Although Prudence and Phoebe waited eagerly, the Honorable James Penhurst did not arrive the next day, or
the next, and the sisters were both becoming much discouraged. They had helped their servant girl, Mary, with the cleaning until their small home fairly sparkled, and Mrs. Collins, the cook, had made up special biscuits, but apparently their distinguished neighbor was unaware of the delights awaiting him at the cottage, for he did not come.

By the third day, Phoebe was in a pique, and Prudence had gone back to her writing. Try as she might to concentrate on her characters, however, the living, breathing owners of Wolfinger came too often to mind, interrupting her work.

This was not the first time Prudence had thought of Ravenscar, of course. The earl had long occupied her imaginings. In her heart, she wished him to be as darkly handsome, mysterious and compelling as his home. In her head, she knew that he was probably short and fat and red-faced, or so old and doddering as to be utterly lacking in interesting qualities altogether.

However, having heard his brother described in such glowing terms by Phoebe, she had reshaped her opinion. Perhaps, just perhaps, the earl was not so aged or ugly…

“He is here!” Phoebe’s strained whisper of excitement broke through her concentration, and Prudence lifted her head instantly. So intent was she upon Ravenscar that for a moment she thought it might be he, but, no, it was his brother who came today. Well, here was her chance, Prudence thought, with grim determination. No matter what the Penhursts looked like, she wanted to see their home, and she was resolved to gain an invitation.

Sending Phoebe on to receive their guest in the parlor, Prudence hurried to the kitchen and asked Cook to prepare a nice tray. Then she stepped into the parlor for her first look at a Penhurst and stopped stock-still, staring helplessly.

Of course, Phoebe had said he was handsome, and Prudence knew Phoebe’s tastes well enough, and yet she was
still a little stunned by the Honorable James Penhurst’s appearance. He and Phoebe were seated close together, their young faces bright with animation, their bent heads nearly indistinguishable, for they were much alike. Although Phoebe’s curls were lighter, Penhurst sported blond hair, too, glowing golden around his face in the latest of hairstyles.

His clean, smooth features were comparable to Phoebe’s, too, in their beauty and balance. Dusty brows rose over sparkling blue eyes, paler, perhaps, than Phoebe’s, but no less enchanting. His nose was straight, his lips were even, his jaw was well-defined. In short, he was quite an attractive young man.

Prudence tried to swallow her disappointment.

The Honorable James Penhurst did not look the slightest bit as if he would be at home at Wolfinger, Prudence decided, her opinion more firmly set when her gaze flitted to his clothing. He wore a puce coat over a garish yellow-and-red-striped waistcoat, complete with watch fob, and his starched collar rose so high, she was certain he would have difficulty turning his head.

He was, Prudence realized with a shudder, a veritable tulip of fashion. Briefly, her more imaginative side wondered if the wicked Ravenscars of the past, including the Devil Earl, a fiendish character who had locked his wife in the tower room until she murdered him, were rolling over in their graves to know that the abbey was housing a…dandy.

Realizing that she was gaping rudely, Prudence finally managed to speak, and the two young people raised their blue eyes to her, their voices intermingling sweetly in greeting. Young Penhurst’s manners were very nice, and Prudence could find no fault with the way he behaved. Still, she could not help but be dismayed to discover, once again, that the world was a far cry from her own surreptitious imaginings.

Luckily, Mary soon entered with the tray, and Prudence occupied herself pouring tea for them all. Once that task was completed, she was left to her own brooding thoughts, as it soon became apparent that the Honorable James Penhurst was interested solely in Phoebe.

Prudence did not feel slighted by this display of partiality, for she was well used to Phoebe drawing attention. Phoebe was, after all, the beauty of the family, and a dear pet, and Prudence took pride in her. Too, she could not help being pleased that her sister was gaining the admiration of someone more illustrious, if less tastefully dressed, than the local fellows.

However, it was not long before the pleasure of watching an attractive couple chat about nothing more interesting than the weather began to pale and Prudence’s original resolve returned in full force. Perhaps Mr. Penhurst was a sad disappointment to her, but surely the abbey itself could not be less than she hoped. And since young Penhurst seemed amiable, she suspected it would be quite easy to gain an invitation to see for herself.

“Mr. Penhurst,” Prudence said, cutting short a particularly long discussion of the local landscape. “How long will you be staying at the abbey?”

Penhurst’s angelic face lost some of its luster. “I…I really cannot say, Miss Lancaster.”

“Oh, but you must stay for the rest of the summer, at least,” Phoebe said in her prettiest tone.

“I shall certainly think about it, Miss Lancaster,” he said, flashing Phoebe a white smile. “To be honest, I had not thought to stay this long, but neither did I expect to find such lovely companionship here in Cornwall, of all places!”

Ignoring his casual slight of her beloved home, Prudence pressed on toward her goal. “We have some wonderful sites to recommend us here along the coast, the abbey for one. Living in its shadow for so many years, we have grown quite curious about it. You must tell us all about it.”

Mr. Penhurst looked decidedly uncomfortable.

“Oh, Prudence!” Phoebe scolded. “Why you are so interested in that horrid place, I will never know. I do not see how you can bear to stay there, Mr. Penhurst. Why, it must be ghastly!”

Mr. Penhurst smiled thinly while Prudence sent Phoebe a speaking look of reproach. Not only was Phoebe undermining her hopes, her sister was being rude, as well.

“Nonsense, Phoebe, the place is positively fascinating,” Prudence argued. “Why, the history of your own ancestors, the Ravenscars, is full of intriguing stories,” she began, turning toward Penhurst.

At the mention of the family title, their guest paled visibly. “I am afraid I don’t know much about the old place. I am quite in agreement with your sister—a rather odious building, actually. Cold and damp, and not at all up to the state I am accustomed to. The rooms I had in London were much more comfortable.”

“Oh, London!” Phoebe said, clapping her hands with delight. “Do tell us of town doings.”

Regaining some of his composure, Penhurst smiled and began a discourse that was, for the most part, amusing, and he slipped only once in a while into unseemly cant. If he were any other gentleman, Prudence would have been quite content to watch him entertain Phoebe, but he was a Penhurst, and she was intent upon garnering an invitation to the abbey.

“More tea?” she asked, interrupting, and, having done so, steered once more toward her goal. “How are you situated for servants at Wolfinger? I would imagine it difficult to get good help there. There are so many silly rumors about it, and the locals are nothing if not superstitious.”

Penhurst looked as if he might choke, then managed a healthy swallow. “Actually, I believe both the housekeeper and butler have been kept on retainer.”

“Oh?” Prudence asked, with interest. “The servants are kept at the ready, then? Does your brother plan to visit sometime, too? I would dearly love to meet him.”

Penhurst dropped his spoon. “I am sure I am not aware of…the earl’s plans. Now, if you will excuse me, ladies, I really must go. It has been delightful, to be sure.” He stood, and Prudence saw Phoebe shoot her an accusing look.

“Oh, surely, you do not have to leave so soon, Mr. Penhurst?” Prudence asked. She tried her best to salvage the situation, but to no avail. Despite both her and Phoebe’s efforts, young Penhurst could not be moved, and they were forced to submit graciously to his wishes.

While Phoebe saw their guest to the door, Prudence removed her spectacles and rubbed the bridge of her nose. “Drat!” she whispered to herself as she put the glasses back on. “And double drat!” Leaning back in her chair, she glanced toward the window, where one of Wolfinger’s towers could be seen rising in the distance. Young Penhurst’s visit had been an unqualified disappointment, for she was no closer to viewing his residence now than she had ever been.

Why, he would not even talk about the place! Crossing her arms, Prudence chewed absently on a finger while she contemplated young Penhurst’s extraordinary behavior. Whenever she had mentioned Ravenscar or the family’s ancestral home, the boy had been most uncomfortable, most uncomfortable indeed.

It was very peculiar, Prudence decided, growing heartened once more. Perhaps the afternoon had not been a total loss, after all, for if she was not mistaken, whatever mysteries Wolfinger harbored still had the power to discompose a rich young dandy like the Honorable James Penhurst.

Why did her questions so upset him? Was there something that the Penhursts did not wish outsiders to see at the abbey? Already, her writer’s mind was leaping ahead to its
own conclusions, and Prudence felt eager anticipation replace the abject disappointment within her breast.

Oh, my, she thought giddily. This was turning out even better than she had hoped!

Chapter Two

P
rudence became more determined than ever to seek out the abbey’s secrets. Penhurst’s sudden visit was odd, very odd indeed, for he seemed to despise Wolfinger. He was a dandy who described London with enthusiasm, and yet he was staying in an isolated part of Cornwall with little entertainment other than that offered by a small fishing village and some local gentry, whom, by all accounts, he had made little attempt to contact. What, then, had brought him to the family seat? It was a puzzle worthy of Prudence’s investigative skills, and she latched on to it eagerly.

Between unsuccessful bouts at her writing desk, Prudence pondered the mystery and how to delve further into it. She was deep in contemplation two days later when Mrs. Bates arrived suddenly. Since Phoebe was out walking, Prudence was left to deal with the unexpected and not very welcome guest.

Her annoyance at the interruption was soon compounded, for it became apparent that Mrs. Bates, who considered herself one of the area’s leading social arbiters, had not received a visit from Penhurst. Nor was she pleased that the Lancaster sisters had been so favored, when she had not.

“My dear Prudence,” Mrs. Bates began, once they had settled themselves down with some tea and Cook’s seed
biscuits. “I am afraid that I am here today not simply for a pleasant visit.”

“Oh?” Prudence was not surprised, for she would not describe any of Mrs. Bates’s visits as pleasant.

“Yes. I have heard some distressing news—so distressing that I can hardly countenance it.”

“Oh?” Prudence said again. Since Mrs. Bates seemed to be distressed quite often, Prudence could not summon up any concern for the matron. She listened with all appearance of attention, while her mind wandered back to her work.

“Yes,” Mrs. Bates replied with a frown. She settled her rather large bulk back in her chair, her voluminous hat nodding in time with her double chins. “It has come to my ears that you have entertained a single gentleman here at the cottage, unchaperoned!”

Prudence thought back over the past few days. She remembered that Clarence Fitzwater had been to the house, mending the fence for them, but good old Clarence, of plain farmer’s stock, would surely bristle at being labeled a gentleman. The vicar had been by earlier in the week, just at suppertime, forcing them to feed him, but the vicar was well-known for his habit of inviting himself for meals everywhere in the parish.

The only other visitor had been Phoebe’s young man. “Do you mean Penhurst?” Prudence asked, nonplussed.

“Of course I mean the Honorable James Penhurst, younger brother to the earl of Ravenscar!” Mrs. Bates said with a huff. “Surely you have not entertained any other single gentlemen of late?”

“Well—” Prudence began, but she was cut off by a noise of disapproval from the matron.

“Really, Prudence, I am quite shocked to hear you admit to it so readily!”

“Well, I—” Prudence tried again, but her next words were quickly trampled by the formidable Mrs. Bates.

“It is time someone took you two girls in hand, I must say. Living here all alone, with no supervision whatsoever, you are leaving yourselves open to scandal.”

Prudence listened with some small measure of surprise to this rebuke, since she and Phoebe had shared the cottage with their cook—Mary coming in for days only—since the death of their grandmother four years ago. But Mrs. Bates was obviously in a taking about something, and nothing would do but that she continue.

Prudence let the woman drone on while her mind drifted to a particularly difficult point in her book, where her heroine confronted the villain. It was the villain, Prudence decided, who was causing most of her problems. He was simply not distinctive enough…

“And, so, I have been moved finally to protest, my dear. You are not old enough to set up housekeeping without a chaperone!”

Prudence blinked behind her spectacles, drawn out of her reverie by Mrs. Bates’s forceful comment. Surely, the woman could not be serious! Prudence had long ago given up any dreams of marriage. If, indeed, she had ever entertained any, they would have been difficult to fulfill in such an isolated part of Cornwall, where eligible gentlemen were few.

Oh, had she been determined, she could surely have made a match with some shopkeeper or farmer or even one of the more successful fishermen, but since her earliest years she had borne responsibilities that claimed her attention above all else. Caring for her elderly grandmother and her younger sister and balancing their small budget had kept her too busy for frivolous pursuits. Then, burying grandmama and officially taking the reins of the household had occupied her, and by the time Phoebe was old enough to do for herself, Prudence had found herself a spinster.

“I am twenty-four years old, and firmly on the shelf,” she protested wryly.

Mrs. Bates answered with one of her frequent sounds of indignation. “Humph! You are still young enough to catch a man’s eye, and although you are a sensible girl, you are hardly of an age to chaperone a taking thing like Phoebe, or keep her within bounds.”

“Nonsense,” Prudence said. “Phoebe is of a vivacious nature, that is all. There is no harm in her.”

“The gel’s flighty, Prudence, and you know it. We all love her, but I have seen her kind before. She needs a husband, and quickly, before she gets herself into any mischief. She will not be satisfied to shut herself up here with her books and her scribblings, like you, Prudence, nor should she. The gel is a rare beauty, and could make a fine catch, if she were able. If only she could have a London season…”

Mrs. Bates sighed heavily, her chins jiggling in succession. “Have you no relatives in town who might be willing to sponsor her?”

“No,” Prudence answered simply. “We have only a male cousin in London. Nor are we situated comfortably enough to afford an extended visit.”

Some sort of sound, half groan and half snort of disgust, came rumbling out of Mrs. Bates’s throat. “Well, you must get the gel out more, perhaps to the dances over in Mullion, and you simply must get a chaperone! Have you no relations but a…male cousin?” Mrs. Bates uttered the words as if they were positively distasteful.

“No,” Prudence said, more forcefully.

“Well! Perhaps someone of my acquaintance could be induced to stay with you. Goodness, but there are always impoverished females who need a place to live. I shall ask the vicar.”

Prudence, who had listened but absently to most of the matron’s speech, drew the line at this alarming turn. “Oh, no, Mrs. Bates, I am afraid that you must not.”

The matron fixed her formidable dark gaze on Prudence and shook her pudgy finger in warning. “I tell you, you
simply cannot go on here, with no one but two young girls and two female servants in the household. Such an arrangement might have been viewed with indulgence by the villagers, but society at large would look askance. What kind of impression do you think it gave your gentleman caller?”

Prudence considered young Penhurst’s behavior and could see nothing odd or untoward in it, with the exception of his intriguing uneasiness about the abbey. “I hardly think Mr. Penhurst even marked our situation, Mrs. Bates,” she answered bluntly. “He was the soul of propriety. He did not attack either one of us, nor did he treat us as if we were two lightskirts setting up shop along the cliffs.”

While Prudence watched calmly, Mrs. Bates turned red in the face and sought to catch her breath. When she finally did, she released it in various loud noises, indicating her affront. “Prudence Lancaster! I cannot like your plain speaking, nor have I ever. You may think it amusing, but I do not. There! I will leave you to your own devices, but mark my words, you had better keep an eye on your sister. The gel needs a firm hand. And you are most certainly not the one to guide her!”

With several outraged harrumphs, Mrs. Bates took her leave, but Prudence did not spare a thought to the woman’s displeasure. Only one part of Mrs. Bates’s speech had bothered her, and that was the stricture against so-called gentlemen visitors.

“Drat!” she muttered aloud. If she was not free to invite young Penhurst back to the cottage, how was she ever going to secure an invitation to Wolfinger?

When two more days passed without any sign of the abbey’s current resident, Prudence reached the end of her patience. Without renewed inspiration to guide her, it seemed that she did little but stare at a blank piece of paper. Finally,
she glanced up at the fog-enshrouded abbey, threw down her pen and called for her sister.

She had already donned her cloak when Phoebe reached her. “What is it?”

“I am afraid I can no longer wait for Mr. Penhurst to call upon us,” Prudence replied. “Who knows bow long he will remain in Cornwall? He said he did not plan upon a lengthy stay, and I cannot let him go without seeing Wolfinger, a goal which I have held dear most of my life. No, I simply cannot trust to fate to bring us together again,” she added with grim determination, missing the look of alarm on her sister’s normally serene features.

“But, Prudence!” Phoebe protested. “Surely you cannot intend to march right up to his door! Mrs. Bates would have an apoplexy should she hear of it! And Mr. Penhurst… Why, I am sure that he would not like it above half. He hates that gloomy old place, and does not want people traipsing through it. Why, he himself is only staying there because he is forced to by…by…”

“By what?” Prudence halted suddenly, her fingers resting on the latch, and eyed her sister with curiosity.

“By…circumstances,” Phoebe said, before she turned and groped for her own wrap.

“What circumstances?”

“I am sure I do not know the whole, Mr. Penhurst having not taken me into his confidence,” Phoebe replied. She seemed inordinately interested in the way her garment was situated upon the sturdy peg by the rear entrance.

Watching her, Prudence felt a strange uneasiness. “And when did he tell you all of this?”

“When…we were visiting together, of course. Silly!” Phoebe whirled around, with a too-bright smile upon her face. “I cannot approve of your scheme, Prudence, but if you wish to go for a walk, I shall join you,” she added, putting on her cloak. “It looks like the weather might turn, and I would not have you caught out in it alone.”

Prudence felt a strange niggling, as if a thought were tapping at the corner of her mind, trying to gain her attention, but Phoebe was already leaving the cottage, and she had to hurry to catch up with her sister.

The air was damp and cool and the sky gray—not the best day for a climb along the cliffs, but the Lancasters were hardy girls and they followed the well-worn paths with ease. Phoebe chatted in her usual companionable way, but Prudence was intent upon one thing—reaching the abbey.

She had never put much stock in convention, so it mattered little to her if she strained the bounds of propriety a bit by showing up uninvited at a bachelor’s establishment. It was not as if young Penhurst were a desperate character intent upon ravishing them. He was an aristocrat, a neighbor, a well-mannered gentleman, and she did not plan on a lengthy stay. A peek—just a look at the famed building’s interior—was all she wanted.

If Phoebe noticed that they were gradually working their way toward the abbey, she did not mention it. However, it was not long before she tried to coax Prudence to return home. “Perhaps we had better go back, Prudence,” she said, frowning thoughtfully. “The weather has turned, as I knew it would, and I have no wish to be caught by a storm!”

Prudence looked up, rather surprised to see how the sky had darkened. When she was lost in thought, she often became oblivious of all else, and this was not the first time she had been startled by a sudden change in her circumstances.

The wind had picked up alarmingly, too, flapping their cloaks and whipping their hair about their faces. Although Prudence was well aware of the dangers of such sudden storms, they were already on the grounds of Wolfinger. She could see the rear of the tall structure towering above them, like a beacon calling to her, and she was loath to surrender her scheme after coming so far.

“Nonsense!” she answered. “Look, Phoebe, we are nearly to Mr. Penhurst’s. Perhaps he will be about. It would
be a shame to leave without passing by.” With brisk motions, Prudence urged her sister on, determined to take the quickest route to her goal.

Without a thought to her grim surroundings, she opened the wrought-iron entrance to the ancient graveyard that lay in the shadow of the abbey and picked her way through the overgrown stones. She heard Phoebe following, murmuring a protest, and then the gate slammed shut with a loud clang that made her sister jump and squeak.

“Prudence—” she began in a high, anxious voice. “Mr. Penhurst will not be about. No one is out in this weather! I want to go home!”

“Nonsense,” Prudence repeated.

“Prudence! Oh, I don’t know why I let you drag me here,” Phoebe wailed. “I despise this horrid, ghastly place!”

Ignoring her sister’s words, most of which were lost upon the wildly gusting breeze anyway, Prudence climbed over the crumbling stone wall that marked the edge of the cemetery and stepped toward the long, curving drive that led to the imposing abbey. The wind was positively howling now, rattling shutters and setting the graveyard gate to banging like a clock striking the hour.

A breathless Phoebe reached Prudence’s side and pulled rather frantically on her arm. “Come, Prudence, let us go home before we are drowned or washed into the sea.” Following her sister’s gaze, Prudence found it was not the slippery cliffs that drew Phoebe’s look of horror, but Wolfinger itself, tall and black and menacing in the dim light. As she viewed the formidable edifice with admiration, Prudence noticed a figure hurrying toward the great stone steps that marched toward the arched entrance.

“Hello!” Prudence called, moving forward. “Hello, there!” The man halted and gazed in her direction, and to Prudence’s delight, she realized it was young Penhurst himself. With high hopes, she strode toward him eagerly,
ignoring the dismay that was quite apparent on the boy’s face.

“Mr. Penhurst! How nice that we should run into you!” Prudence said, speaking louder than usual, so that she might be heard over the roaring of the wind. “We were just out for our walk, and I said to Phoebe, we simply must look in on Mr. Penhurst.”

If Mr. Penhurst saw anything unusual in the two girls’ strolling about on such a ferocious day, he was too well-bred to say so, but he did not appear pleased to see them. He looked anxiously over his shoulder, as if torn between inviting them in, which, apparently, he did not want to do, and leaving them to the mercy of the elements, which would hardly mark him as a gentleman.

Although his face brightened at the arrival of Phoebe, who had hurried to join them, he nonetheless appeared troubled as he glanced around. Seen against the backdrop of his ancestral home, and stricken by some sort of nervous energy, he seemed more of a Penhurst, but Prudence still found him sadly lacking. The gathering clouds muted the brilliance of his blond hair, yet he could hardly be called mysterious, and he was obviously uncomfortable in his surroundings.

While she listened absently to the young people’s chatter, Prudence brooded. When it became clear, from his peculiar manner, that young Penhurst was not going to invite them inside, she suspected that she would have to think of some way to politely force him to do so. She was just on the point of manufacturing a swollen ankle when the decision was taken away from them all.

Thunder had been growing in the distance, so at first no one took note of a low rumbling, and the sky had become so dark as to make seeing any great distance an impossibility. But suddenly a great flash of lightning lit the area as bright as day, illuminating a coach and four that appeared over the rise in the drive.

Prudence was immediately struck by the funereal aspect of the scene. It seemed apocalyptic: the black horses, their hooves pounding in their headlong race toward the abbey, and the shiny, midnight-colored carriage, with its driver wrapped so well against the weather as to be completely unrecognizable.

She sucked in a breath, trying to absorb the majesty of the vision as the animals rushed forward against a bleak, stormtossed sky, the wind whipping and howling around them like a banshee.

This was the stuff of her dreams, and Prudence was suddenly filled with a sort of wild exhilaration that she had never known before, her blood pumping fresh and fast within her veins. Never in her quiet, sensible existence, or even in the silent splendor of her own imagination, had Prudence known such a moment, and she felt giddy with the force of it.

She was aware of Mr. Penhurst pulling Phoebe back, closer to the steps, but she remained where she was, thrilled by the thunder and clatter of the magnificent vehicle’s approach. It rolled to a halt but a few feet from where the three of them stood watching, and with breathless excitement, Prudence recognized the Ravenscar coat of arms, gleaming in the shadowy light.

Then the door was thrown open, and a man stepped out. Tall and lean and swathed in a dark cloak, he looked like some phantom from hell, and Prudence saw Phoebe inch closer to her neighbor. The Honorable James Penhurst had paled considerably himself, and his interesting reaction made Prudence eye the new arrival more closely.