The Misgivings About Miss Prudence – Maggie Dallen

There was nothing mysterious about Miss Prudence Pottermouth. With Prudence, what one saw was what one got. For the most part. She had precisely two secrets which she kept from her friends at Miss Grayson’s School of Charm, a finishing school for refined young ladies. Or, as her friend Louisa put it —a finishing school for young ladies whose guardians knew not what to do with them. She wasn’t wrong. For Prudence, in particular, that description had always seemed acutely apt. She’d spent the better part of two years at this school, alongside her best friend Delilah and the other girls, and it was precisely because she was not wanted anywhere else. That was her first secret. Although, considering Louisa, Addie, and Delilah had been at her side earlier today when she’d eavesdropped on Miss Grayson’s conversation with her great aunt, she supposed that secret was out. “But surely Miss Pottermouth’s parents—” Miss Grayson had started. “Her parents neither know nor care what that girl is doing,” Aunt Eleanor had snapped. Prudence winced at the memory of those words. True, to be certain, but still unpleasant to hear. Even more so when she’d glanced over to find her friends eyeing her with varying degrees of sympathy and pity.

And that right there was why she’d kept her unwanted status a secret. She was not one to be pitied. She’d been given every advantage as a child, thanks to her great aunt’s management. And her time at Miss Grayson’s had given her the feeling of home she’d never known she’d been missing. Because of this, it was only natural that she should be feeling a bit emotional about leaving. Prudence frowned down at the bag she was packing with her belongings. This feeling was definitely only natural—but it was still unwelcome. “I am certain she won’t keep you away from us for long,” Delilah said reassuringly as she watched Prudence pack her life away. Well, she’d said it as reassuringly as a lady like Delilah was able. Which was to say, not very reassuringly at all.

Though her recent adventures and her newly formed engagement with Lord Rupert had softened Prudence’s friend a little, Delilah could not quite shake a lifetime of cool arrogance and that haughty demeanor. Prudence gave her friend a small smile. She didn’t mind Delilah’s standoffish ways. She never had. Perhaps because she’d always understood that beneath that icy hauture was a heart of gold. Well, perhaps not gold. But not the cold lump of ice she pretended to have, either. “Yes, I’m sure you’ll be back before we know it,” Addie said. Ever the optimist, Addie was giving her an encouraging smile that had the opposite effect. Rather than making her feel better, the flicker of pity she caught in the other girl’s eyes made her want to slam her trunk shut and pull her bag of sweets out of its hiding spot.

That was her second secret. Her private pleasure. Her only vice. “I still don’t understand what your great aunt was so upset about,” Louisa said. Leave it to Louisa to bring up the more awkward aspect of the conversation they’d overheard. “I thought she made herself quite clear.” Delilah’s voice dripped with anger. Delilah might have had her faults, but as a friend she was utterly devoted. Prudence suspected she’d been more upset than anyone at the way her great aunt had spoken about her…and her horrid performance. Prudence struggled to be a mediocre musician at the best of times, but under her great aunt’s terrifying, watchful stare… She’d been dreadful.

“I had no idea anyone could get so worked up over a recital,” Addie murmured. Prudence winced. And then she gave into the overwhelming need for sugar and pulled out her secret stash, popping a lemon sweet into her mouth as she suffered through another wave of embarrassment. “Just because you do not have an ear for music—” Addie began. “No ear for music?” Louisa laughed. “That’s an understatement, wouldn’t you say?” Prudence did not have to look to know that Louisa’s sudden silence was in response to the warning glare she was no doubt getting from Delilah and the more gentle shake of a head from Addie. Louisa had a knack for speaking out of turn, but right now Prudence couldn’t quite bring herself to scold her friend for that fault. Not when her own flaw had been so glaringly brought into the light. “Whether she’s a musical prodigy or not is beside the point,” Delilah said. “What matters is that her aunt ought not to speak of her like that.

” “That is very true,” Addie said. “She was remarkably uncharitable, especially considering how well Prudence has mastered every other lesson.” Delilah turned to Prudence with barely concealed rage. “You ought not listen to her, Pru. Your aunt is a beast,” she said. “She makes my stepmother look saintly.” Louisa snickered at that. Even Addie smiled. Prudence sighed, rolling her eyes at her friend’s exaggeration. In the months since Delilah’s adventure, she’d become more and more fond of finding the humor in her story, which was like something straight out of a gothic romance.

She supposed Delilah’s good humor on the topic was Lord Rupert’s influence. The charming gentleman who’d saved Delilah from her stepmother’s evil plans had softened Delilah considerably, bringing out her natural warmth and wit. Prudence pursed her lips as she scowled at her friend. “Really, Dee. Your stepmother planned to murder you. I hardly think it is fair to compare Aunt Eleanor to that wicked woman.” Delilah shrugged, unapologetic. “She shouldn’t be allowed to talk about you like that.” “What does she expect?” Addie asked, her voice rising in a rare show of outrage. “Does she think you have to be perfect in order to find a good match?” Yes.

Prudence bit her tongue to keep from answering what was obviously a rhetorical question. But truly, yes, that was exactly what her aunt expected. “But Prudence is perfect, Addie,” Louisa interjected with a mischievous little grin. “She’s told us so herself any number of times, haven’t you, Pru?” “Louisa,” Addie sighed. “Not now, Louisa,” Delilah snapped. Prudence didn’t mind her teasing. This was the way it had always been between her and Louisa ever since the other girl joined her as a student at this school. While she considered Louisa a friend, the outspoken redhead was in every way her opposite. Prudence disapproved of just about everything Louisa did and Louisa found Prudence to be unbearably sanctimonious. They’d butted heads since day one and while they cared about one another, their relationship was far more akin to siblings who teased and squabbled than true friends.

Or at least, that was what Prudence suspected. She had no siblings so she had nothing to compare it to. “She knows I’m teasing,” Louisa protested. “Don’t you, Pru?” “Of course I do,” Prudence said with a weary sigh. “But you must mind your manners, Louisa, if you’re ever going to be a respectable marchioness.” Louisa’s grin was filled with joy at the mere mention of her upcoming marriage. “Don’t you worry about me, Pru. Tumberland loves me just the way I am.” Prudence rolled her eyes. Out of habit she looked to Delilah to share in her distaste for Louisa and Addie’s sappy sighs, but Delilah was too busy smiling vapidly just like the others.

Prudence sighed and reached for another sweet. Perhaps it was for the best that Aunt Eleanor was bringing her back to her country estate. Ever since Delilah had gone and fallen in love, Prudence had become the odd woman out. While the rest of her friends prattled on about upcoming weddings and talked of true love and destiny, Prudence sat by and listened and tried not to lose the contents of her stomach at the sickening romantic drivel. Romance was just another word for selfish decisions, as far as Prudence was concerned. Love was just a fantasy, ephemeral and weak. Neither romance nor love ought to take the place of reason when it came to making life-altering decisions. But she knew better than to try and convince her friends of this. They would look at her like she’d gone mad and then return to their plans for wedded bliss. She made a rather unattractive and cynical snorting sound as she sucked on her candy.

Yes, it was definitely for the best that she was leaving. This sense of homesickness would pass once the school was out of sight, and her aunt, while perhaps a bit too harsh with her criticisms, had not been wrong. While Miss Grayson and the other tutors at this school had helped her refine her skills, she was still a failure when it came to music. To Addie’s point, her great aunt expected Prudence to be perfect. And while that might seem unfair to Addie and the others, it was the way she’d been raised. Her every decision and choice were with the one aim of becoming the perfect wife for the eldest Mr. Benedict, the son of a wealthy merchant who her great aunt had forged an understanding with when she was only a child. It might not have been such a fine match as Louisa had made, or Addie, or even Delilah, but it was a good match, considering that her parents had been a disgrace amongst the ton. Her great aunt might have been a dowager duchess, but Prudence was her youngest sister’s youngest daughter’s only daughter. The only reason she had any prospects at all was due to her great aunt’s sense of obligation.

She ought to be grateful that her aunt had found her a marriage prospect at all. She had not yet had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Benedict’s acquaintance, but her aunt assured her he was the perfect match, and for him she was to be perfect as well. Anything less would be disrespectful to the arrangement. Oh, it was not a formal arrangement, but everyone knew it would come to pass. Just as soon as she overcame her last fault. Her fatal flaw. Her eyes narrowed as she shoved the bag of sweets out of sight to avoid further temptation. Silly music. She despised the topic.

Hated balls for the mere fact that they almost always included it—dancing would be rather difficult without it, she supposed. And yet, she still resented it. She resented even more those people for whom it came so easily. Which, right now, seemed to include every other person in this room. “In all seriousness, though, Pru…” Louisa interrupted her rapidly rising frustration. “Your aunt really should not talk about you like that. As though you’re just some…some —” Prudence snapped the trunk shut with a loud click to cut off Louisa’s statement. She did not wish to hear how it would end. It was bad enough that her friends had overheard that dreadful, humiliating lecture on Prudence’s stubborn flaws and Miss Grayson’s inability to fix them. But to see Louisa, of all people, feeling sorry for her… It was too much.

“That is enough,” she said, her chin held high as she turned to face her irritating but well-intentioned friends. “We should not have been eavesdropping in the first place.” To a one, her friends’ expressions fell. The camaraderie of the moment seemed to shift as she spoke. She could see them going on the defensive, as they always did when she became “unbearably sanctimonious” or “a self-righteous know-it-all,” as Louisa put it. She tilted her chin higher, some of her hurt emotions fading behind the familiar mask of indifference. “It’s my own fault for listening in on a conversation that was not meant for my ears.” “But—” “We should never have eavesdropped,” she said again, firmer this time to override Addie’s protest. “I should never have let you talk me into it.” This last part was aimed at Louisa directly, and her friend flinched.

“I didn’t force you,” she muttered, but her gaze fell with a guilty look. “Now then,” Prudence said with a calm she did not feel. “If you’ll excuse me. I must finish packing if I am to leave for my aunt’s home in the morning.” THE CARRİAGE RİDE was both a blessing and curse. It was with relief that Prudence lost herself to the rhythmic clopping of the horses’ hooves as the school and London were left behind her. She’d never been fond of farewells. Or the emotions that tended to come with them. So it was a relief to have that behind her. The ache she felt would fade, of that she was certain.

She’d learned from experience that the pain of loss and leaving was short-lived. One merely had to bear with it for a while. She dug into her reticule and pulled out one of the last of her sweets. Experience had also taught her that sweets helped to ease any pain. “Put that away, girl. We have enough to overcome before Mr. Benedict arrives without adding your excessive weight to the mix.” Prudence dropped the treat quickly, her cheeks burning with embarrassment. While she’d never been as svelte as her friends at the finishing school, she’d never felt so very overweight as she did at this precise moment with her stick-thin elderly aunt eyeing her like she was an eyesore who ought not to be admitted into good company. She folded her hands in her lap, focusing on the view outside the carriage rather than the blow to her pride.

It wasn’t until she’d watched trees whip past her and her breathing evened that her great aunt’s words truly registered. When they did, they left her winded. “Mr. Benedict is coming to visit?” Her great aunt blinked at her from behind her spectacles as if eyeing something odious. “Of course. He and his uncle, Sir William. Why else do you think I came for you?” Why else, indeed? Surely not for the pleasure of my company. She sniffed, brushing aside the bitter thought. Sarcasm was a bad habit, not one to be indulged. It was merely hostility masquerading as humor.

That was what Aunt Eleanor would say. And she was right. She was always right. Waiting until her features were composed and her posture perfect, she ventured once more into the treacherous topic of her would-be fiancé. The fact that the arrangement had yet to be finalized was still a sensitive topic. A topic that grew ever more sensitive with each passing year that their engagement was not announced and a wedding date not set. But then again, Mr. Benedict was a busy man. Her great aunt so often said so. An exacting man, from what she’d heard.

To be honest, she did not know much about the man she was to wed except that her parents and his had once been friends. Though his parents had presumably stuck around to watch him grow up while hers had cast aside all parental obligations from the day she was born. They were too in love, you see. She fought the urge to roll her eyes at the phrase she’d overheard more times than she could count as an adolescent. Too in love. So very in love. Aren’t they so romantic? Oh yes. Her parents were so very romantic, the sort of love story that gossip mongers loved to whisper about and sigh over even as they condemned the lovers for their improper ways. A modern-day Romeo and Juliet except that they’d found their happily ever after and left their only child to deal with the ensuing tragedy. Prudence’s mother was supposed to marry another, and by casting aside the man she was meant to marry for the man she’d loved since she was a girl… Well, it was both objectionable and admired among the ladies of the ton.

Or so she’d been told. From her great aunt’s perspective it was merely objectionable, and Prudence couldn’t help but agree. “It’s about time that boy makes this official,” her aunt muttered. Prudence looked up with a start. She’d hardly realized her aunt was still talking until she smacked her gloves against her palm in a sound that seemed to echo through the small carriage. “Pardon me?” Prudence said. “I will have a talk with him and his uncle when they arrive.” It seemed as though Prudence was no longer an active part of this conversation. Young ladies were to be seen and not heard, as her aunt liked to point out. That was always the case when she was speaking to Prudence.

No responses were required or welcome unless they were specifically requested. So she listened quietly now as her great aunt spoke ad nauseum about the insulting way Mr. Benedict had procrastinated on setting a date or formalizing the engagement. “It’s unheard of,” Aunt Eleanor said. “It’s disrespectful.” No, just humiliating. At this point, it was merely humiliating. Eleanor had to realize what was happening here. Mr. Benedict and his family were waiting to see if a better offer came along.

After all, this arrangement had been discussed when they were mere children and the friendship with her parents had been a solid, dependable thing. But now a decade had passed and her parents had as little regard for their friends as they had their daughter, allowing even their longest acquaintances to fall by the wayside as they galavanted around the world like gypsies. While Prudence’s dowry was ample and her connections better than most, she was hardly in a class of her own. There were any number of women who had more to recommend themselves and quite honestly Prudence thought Mr. Benedict would be foolish not to consider his options. A flurry of unease unfurled in her belly at the thought. It was not that she was so very set on this match. After all, she did not even know the man in question. But her aunt was set on it and that was what mattered. For, if this fell through… Well, it wasn’t as though there was a queue forming for unwanted, not terribly well connected, plain looking young ladies, now was there? She shifted as the unpleasant thought was followed by another even more unpleasant sensation.

Fear. It was fear, plain and simple. All this time she’d taken Mr. Benedict’s procrastination as nothing more than a wealthy man’s whim. He was not in a rush to marry, so why rush the engagement? But now… If her great aunt was worried—and she clearly was—then perhaps she ought to be worried, as well. “I should never have sent you to that school,” her aunt continued. “Miss Grayson clearly allowed you to be as lazy as ever.” “She did not—” Her protest died in her throat under her great aunt’s withering glare. Her throat felt choked under the heat of it. She hadn’t been silly enough to defend herself—nothing she said or did would convince Aunt Eleanor that she was anything other than lazy, fat, and ungrateful.

But she couldn’t sit by and let Miss Grayson be slandered. Miss Grayson, who’d been so kind to her. Even during those moments when the others merely tolerated her, Miss Grayson had treated her with love and kindness. Almost like a mother. The thought made her lips twitch upwards. Miss Grayson was not even a decade older than her and she had ten times more beauty than Prudence ever could. She hardly fit the role of her mother. An older sister, perhaps. Whatever her role, she ought not to have her name or her school in jeopardy merely because Prudence was a failure at music. “It wasn’t Miss Grayson’s fault that I haven’t mastered music, Aunt,” she forced herself to continue despite the wicked glare.

“We’ll see about that.” Prudence blinked in surprise at the cryptic comment. “What does that mean?” “It means I have taken it upon myself to find you a new tutor. One who has a great reputation for making young ladies such as yourself find the discipline necessary to mastering the pianoforte.” Prudence straightened with alarm. Images of harsh instructors from her past came back to haunt her as well as the sting of their ruler when she failed to perform without error. Which would it be? Or had her aunt found someone even more fearsome for her to learn from? The thought left her winded with a whole new terror that had nothing to do with the spinster life that loomed ahead of her and everything to do with torturous, painful lessons. “Lord Damian comes highly recommended.” “Damian?” she repeated without thinking. “Surely you remember the Marquess of Ainsley’s nephew.

He’s made quite a name for himself as a music tutor among the ton.” Her eyes narrowed on Prudence with scorn. “He will whip you into shape or you and your hopes of marriage are as good as done for.” She blinked once. Then she blinked again. Shock didn’t begin to cover it. Amusement warred with disbelief which battled with incomprehension. Surely she wasn’t talking about the Lord Damian. That man wouldn’t know the word discipline if it slapped him across the knuckles. No, there was only one word that Prudence associated with Damian.

And that word…? Rake.

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