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Prudence Armitage has long harbored a secret infatuation for Nicholas Parrish. As they work together on The Ladies’ Fashionable Cabinet, the magazine for which Pru is acting as temporary editor-in-chief, Nick sees the quiet, shy woman as no more than a friend and colleague. Until a compromising situation turns both their worlds upside down.
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“I might have known I’d find you here.”
Prudence Armitage looked up at the sound of the familiar voice. The warm smile that greeted her set off the tiniest fluttering in her breast, involuntary and inevitable. She had known Nicholas Parrish over four years and he could still make her weak in the knees with that smile. Fortunately, she was seated at the moment and in no danger of an embarrassing collapse.
She quickly removed her spectacles and tucked them into the pocket of her skirt.
“You’ve been working late almost every night,” he said. “You ought to go home, Pru, before you wear yourself out. What are you working on?”
She cleared her throat. Shy at the best of times, she was sometimes painfully so with Nicholas. Especially when alone with him, and that had happened all too frequently the last few months. “I am editing Mary Hays’ latest essay on illustrious women of history,” she said. The essay was intended for the next issue of The Ladies’ Fashionable Cabinet, a popular monthly magazine of which Prudence was temporarily in charge.
“Now, that’s a job I don’t envy,” Nicholas said, “editing all that flowery prose. Chopping it up, are you?”
Prudence smiled. “Only a bit. Edwina warned me that Mary has become very sensitive lately about any changes to her work. Somehow, though, I need to shave off half a column. If not here, then somewhere else.”
Nicholas strode into the room and came to stand beside the desk, studying the various articles, letters, and essays strewn about the surface. “Feel free to cut whatever you think necessary from Augusta’s article. I promise not to be the least insulted.” He flashed a grin, creating little fans of creases around his twinkling dark eyes.
Nicholas wrote historical essays and biographical sketches under the pen name Augusta Historica. But as far as Prudence was concerned, his prose, like everything else about him, was near perfect, and she wouldn’t dream of modifying it. “Your essay this month is brilliant. I would sooner cut Mary’s than yours.” She looked away, embarrassed that he might find her words obsequious.
“You put me to the blush, my girl. But I’m sure you’ll find a way to make it all work. You always do. That’s why Edwina put you in charge during her absence. You’re the only one who could possibly keep all this together.” He made a sweeping gesture incorporating the entire room that served as an office for The Ladies’ Fashionable Cabinet. “But you know you can call upon me for any help you require. I hate to see you putting in such long hours.”
“Edwina did as much.”
“My sister has been obsessed with the magazine since she took over as editor five years ago. It was her life, until recently. But I think it is a very good sign that she allowed herself to take an extended wedding trip to France, don’t you?”
“Oh, yes.” Prudence had feared her stubborn friend had locked up her heart forever. She had been thrilled when Edwina finally admitted she was in love with Anthony Morehouse and married him.
Nicholas hitched one hip onto the desk and half sat on the edge. The fabric of his knee breeches pulled tight against a long, well-muscled thigh. Prudence tore her gaze away. She would die of embarrassment if he realized how easily his nearness could discompose her.
“I must say, I was glad she and Morehouse hared off to Paris the moment travel restrictions were lifted,” he said. “I know she hated to be away from the Cabinet for so long, but she needed to break away, to have something more in her life. As do you, my girl.”
He reached out and chucked her lightly on the chin. Lord, how she wished he would not do that.
“It’s too many nights now,” he said, “I have seen the candles burning late down here.”
Prudence wondered if he might be concerned with the number of candles she burned to the ends each week. The magazine’s offices, such as they were, happened to be located on the ground floor of the town house Nicholas had long shared with his sister. Candles were a minor expense, but she was aware of his circumstances. She ought to have been more considerate. Starting tomorrow, she would bring her own candles.
“I am sorry to be staying so late again,” she said, “but I so want to do a good job while Edwina’s away. I don’t want her to feel she must worry about anything when she should be enjoying herself. Thankfully, she is well organized –”
“To a fault.”
“– and so it is easy enough to see what must be done each month. I will try to leave within an hour, and then you may have the house to yourself.”
Prudence had often worked late with Edwina, but never as late as she had done since being left in charge. She wondered if her presence in his house was awkward for Nicholas. Though it pained her to consider it, what if he wanted to bring someone — a woman — home with him at night? As a gently-bred spinster long on the shelf, she was not supposed to be aware of such things, but she had five brothers and was not a complete fool. As far as Nicholas was concerned, however, she would rather not know about that aspect of his life.
“Don’t leave on my account,” he said. “I am on my way out for the evening.”
She had assumed as much from his dress. He wore satin knee breeches and stockings, and his shirt was frilled and pleated. No matter what he wore, he was one of the handsomest men she’d ever known — dark, almost black hair and eyes; even, white teeth so often on display in a roguish smile; a tall, slender frame that moved with an animal-like grace. She’d foolishly fallen in love with Nicholas the first time she’d laid eyes on him. And like a schoolgirl of seventeen instead of a spinster of seven-and-twenty, she continued to harbor a ridiculous infatuation for him.
Ridiculous because Prudence was not exactly the sort of woman to attract a man like Nicholas Parrish. If they had not worked closely together for so many years, he would never have given her a second glance. Or a first, for that matter. She was small and colorless next to his dark beauty. Like a little gray pony beside a sleek, black stallion. A more mismatched pair could scarcely be imagined.
“And I’ll tell you what, Pru.” He leaned toward her and gave a conspiratorial wink. “I’m planning on making a full night of it. Good food, good wine, good play, and maybe, just maybe … a good bit of carousing. Oh dear. You’re blushing. I shouldn’t say such things to a respectable lady, I know.” He straightened and shook out his coattails. “But you’re a good friend and a good sport, Pru. I know you don’t mind.”
“No, I don’t mind,” she lied. She was quite accustomed to his treating her like a sister. Or one of his male cronies. That did not mean she liked it. But it wasn’t his fault. Prudence was used to men forgetting she was female. She lived in a house full of men who forgot all the time.
“Well, I’m off then,” Nicholas said. “You’ll be all right by yourself?”
“Yes, of course.”
“Are you certain you wouldn’t like to finish up and allow me to escort you home?”
“No, thank you, Nicholas. I do want to continue editing this essay, if you don’t mind. And it’s always easy to find a hackney near the square, no matter what hour.”
“Then I shall leave you to your edits. But don’t work too late, my girl. You are looking tired, a bit haggard.”
With a flash of white teeth and dark eyes, he was gone.
Prudence dropped her head to rest on her arms. She looked haggard, did she? How mortifying for him to notice. She did not look pretty under the best of circumstances. She must look a fright at the moment, even without her spectacles.
But she was tired. She’d been working long and hard on the magazine. It frankly astonished her how much Edwina had done to keep it running smoothly. But Prudence was determined to prove her friend’s trust was not misplaced. Her work on The Ladies’ Fashionable Cabinet was just about the only thing Prudence was truly proud of in her life. She was not blessed with a great deal of self-confidence. She was small and plain and shy — a spinster with no prospects. But the trust of Edwina, Nicholas, and the others at the Cabinet stirred a quiet sort of pride within her in a way that nothing else had ever done. She had a keen desire to live up to their faith in her. She was determined to do a good job, an outstanding job, as acting editor-in-chief.
Prudence had first become involved with the Cabinet by occasionally submitting articles. She had been impressed by the quality of the writing in the magazine, and also by its very subtle republican outlook, especially in its attitude toward women. Prudence had discovered the writings of Mary Wollstonecraft as a young girl, and strongly supported her philosophies regarding the role of women, the need for women to take charge of their own lives, to take responsibility for their destinies. When she recognized a hint of those philosophies in a magazine she had once considered no more than frivolous entertainment, she was intrigued.
Her articles were always accepted, and Edwina eventually solicited more from her. Finally, Edwina invited her to come on board in a more formal role as assistant editor, which Prudence had done with great pleasure. She had taken on some of the business aspects of publication and thought she knew all there was to know about publishing a monthly magazine. But she was fast discovering how little she really knew of all that Edwina had done to keep the business running smoothly, especially since their circulation numbers had more than doubled during the past six months.
It was invigorating, though, to actually be in charge. She felt important, valuable. It was a heady experience.
The only drawback was that the offices were in Nicholas’ house. It had been Edwina’s decision to convert the library into a business office and the dining room into a workroom. Prudence had always thought of the town house on Golden Square as Edwina’s house. She had never considered that one day her friend might not be there. With Edwina gone, Prudence found it somewhat awkward to work alone in the home of a single gentleman — a gentleman whose smile could turn her knees to jelly.
It was less awkward when Flora Gallagher, the fashion editor, was about. Or even the Crimson Ladies, the street prostitutes Flora had hired for hand-coloring the fashion plates and other engravings in each month’s issue. The noise and bustle of their company made for a much more comfortable atmosphere than when Prudence was alone in the house with Nicholas.
Any discomfort in this very unconventional household, however, seemed to be hers alone. Nicholas had never indicated any degree of awkwardness. Most likely, he never even noticed her.
No, that was unkind. He was not like her brothers. He was always a gentleman and treated her as a good friend. It was only her own idiotic calf love that brought any awkwardness into the situation. And since she’d never admitted it to a single soul, all the discomfort would remain a private trial.
She was a fool. Instead of squirming within a hopeless and quite childish infatuation she ought to accept the genuine friendship Nicholas offered and be happy for it. She would have to be the last woman on earth before she could expect anything more from him. If then.
She was overcome by a tremendous yawn that reminded her she had lots of work yet to do. There was no time to spin fantasies a woman of her age had no business spinning. She stretched her arms to the ceiling and out to her sides, working out the kinks in her back and shoulders. Then she replaced her spectacles, bent once again to Mary Hays’ essay, and forced all thoughts of Nicholas out of her mind.
* * *
The pounding woke him instantly. Nick had only just dropped off to sleep, having come in quite late — or early, depending on how one looked at it — after a rather boisterous evening with friends. But Lucy, the part-time housemaid, would not be in until the afternoon, and since he had no other servants, it was up to Nick to deal with whoever was pounding on his front door.
He rolled out of bed, reached for the breeches he’d flung on a chair, and tugged them on. He grabbed a shirt and pulled it over his head as he bounded down the stairs. The hall clock showed it to be not yet seven. Who the devil was making such a racket at this ungodly hour?
Nick opened the door to find a middle-aged gentleman of above average height, broad shoulders, and graying blond hair scowling at him. Several taller, broader, blonder, younger men stood behind him wearing matching scowls.
What the hell? It looked for all the world like the Viking hordes had landed on his doorstep.
“Nicholas Parrish?” the older man asked.
Before he could complete the syllable, the man’s fist connected with Nick’s jaw with enough force to send him stumbling back into the hallway. He remained upright only by grabbing hold of the hall table, which he almost managed to overturn.
“Bastard!” the man shouted as he moved toward Nick.
Nick raised his fists, planted his bare feet wide, and bent his knees in an instinctive posture of defense. He wasn’t letting this maniac take one step closer. “Who the hell are you?”
“The father of the woman you defiled last night, that’s who.”
Nick was abashed but maintained his stance. “What?”
“Don’t play dumb with me, you black-hearted cur. You know exactly what I mean.”
“Forgive me, sir, but I do not.” He took a step forward. “And I think you had better leave before I feel obliged to return that blow.”
“I’m not moving until I have satisfaction.”
The man’s younger cohorts joined in as they pressed themselves farther into the hallway.
“That’s right. Satisfaction”
“Let’s beat the fellow senseless.”
“Show him what’s what.”
“He won’t get away with this.”
“The dirty scoundrel.”
Nick’s mind whirled with confusion and a niggling of alarm. These large fellows meant business, yet he had no idea what they were talking about. It did not matter. He was not going to be bullied by a pack of strangers.
“You had better explain yourself, sir,” he said, addressing himself to the older man, “unless you are prepared stain to my doorway with your blood. I don’t care how many lackeys you’ve brought with you.”
“There’s nothing to explain,” the man said. “It’s clear as daylight what’s happened here. Just look at you.”
Nick kept his fists raised but glanced down at his loose shirt and bare toes. “How the hell do you expect me to look? You got me out of bed, for God’s sake. And for what? To be planted a facer by some mad-as-a-Bedlamite stranger.”
The man growled and lunged, but was held back by one of the younger men. “Easy, Papa,” the Viking said. “It pains me to say it, but perhaps we should hear him out first.”
“Nothing easy about it, Roddy. This cad has trifled with your sister and he shall not get away with it.”
“Trifled with who?” Nick shook his head in confusion. “Listen here, I think there’s been some mistake. You have the wrong house and the wrong man.” He began to ease the group of them back toward the door. “Leave now and we’ll call it an honest mistake. Painful” — he rubbed his jaw –“but honest. I bid you good day.”
He tried to encourage them out the door, but the solid wall of five large, irate gentlemen was not to be moved.
“You admit you are Nicholas Parrish,” the leader said. “The debaucher who took advantage of my daughter last night. And by God, sirrah, you will pay.”
“Took advantage …?”
And suddenly the whole business became perfectly clear. Nick’s somewhat rowdy evening had included an hour or so in the bed of a very willing young actress from Drury Lane. Was she trying to set him up, to extort money or marriage from him? A cold, vicious anger cut through him like a knife. She would not get away with it, the little trollop.
“Go to hell,” he said and pressed forward, forcing the man and his minions back toward the doorway. “And take that hussy of a daughter with you. I’ll be damned if I’m tricked into a trumped up leg-shackle with a girl who’s no better than a lightskirt.” And probably no relation at all to this hired gang of thugs.
The older man, obviously an actor in his own right, turned purple in a pretense of rage. “How dare you speak that way about my daughter!”
The younger men — more actors? a whole troupe of actors? — exploded in an outburst of shouts and curses. Their “father” rushed at Nick and grabbed him by the collar. The others surrounded him, pressing against him, trapping him in his own hallway. Nick tried to wrench away from the leader’s grip on his collar, but the tenacious fellow clung like a leech. The man spoke through bared teeth, playing his part with melodramatic relish.
“It cuts me to the quick to think of my girl with such a bounder. Where is she? What have you done with her?”
Nick sneered. “I left her in a pile of rumpled sheets some hours ago. And if you expect me to believe I’m the first to plow that field then you’re a bigger fool than I am.”
The man growled and pulled back his fist in preparation for another blow, but Nick caught his arm and held tight. The others grabbed Nick by the shoulders, but he held firm to the leader.
“You’ve picked the wrong pigeon to pluck,” Nick said. “If your girl thought she’d landed a plump one, I am afraid I must disabuse you of that notion. You won’t get a sou more from me than I left on the bedstead.”
The older man uttered a sort of howl and the younger men descended upon Nick in earnest, eyes blazing with fury. His hold on the leader was lost, and both arms were pinned behind his back. It was all he could do to stand upright.
“I should kill you right now,” one of them said.
“For what?” Nick asked, full of righteous bravado despite being seriously outnumbered. “Not falling for your game? For speaking the truth about your so-called sister? Get out of my house. All of you.” Using every ounce of strength at his disposal, he wrenched his arms free and shoved two of his assailants aside. “Now.”
The older man held his ground and refused to budge an inch. “This is no game,” he said in an ominous tone. “You will do right by my girl or face the consequences.”
“Do right by her? If you are suggesting a marriage, then you may be assured it will be over my dead body.”
“That can be arranged. But the girl will be left a widow, not a hopeless ruin.”
“That one was ruined long ago,” Nick said. “And frequently, I should guess.”
“Kill him, Roddy.”
“No, let me do it.”
“We’ll take turns.”
“Not yet, boys. We need him for the wedding.” The leader had grown so red in the face he looked near apoplexy. He was shaking with feigned anger. It was a performance worthy of the legendary Garrick. “You will give her your name, Parrish, and then I’ll let her brothers do with you what they will. And I hope never to lay eyes upon you again.”
Nick shoved the man in the chest, sending him back into the doorway. “Your threats grow tedious, sir. I would not marry your wretched daughter if you put a gun to my head.”
The man looked over Nick’s shoulder. He drew in a sharp breath and his eyes widened.
Nick turned and saw Prudence coming down the hallway.
Her hair had fallen down on one side and spilled in a mass of tousled reddish gold curls over her shoulder. The bodice of her dress hung slightly askew. Her eyes looked drowsy with sleep even as they widened with apprehension.
Read the Excerpt from the first book in the Ladies' Fashionable Cabinet Trilogy »