Here you are, Miss Prue." Mrs. Beedle took a pile of envelopes from a top shelf in her kitchen. "Quite a few of them today. This one looks very serious." She selected a long thick vellum envelope from the sheaf and peered quite unselfconsciously at the printed heading.
Prudence sipped her tea and made no attempt to hurry her hostess. Mrs. Beedle moved at her own pace and had her own way of doing things . . . very much like her brother, Jenkins--a man who combined his duties as butler with those of friend, assistant, and sometimes partner in crime to the three Duncan sisters in the house on Manchester Square.
"Any news of Miss Con?" Mrs. Beedle inquired, finally setting the envelopes on the well-scrubbed pine table and reaching for the teapot.
"Oh, we had a wire yesterday. They're in Egypt at the moment." Prudence pushed her cup across to be refilled. "But they've visited Rome and Paris on the way. It seems like a wonderful trip."
She sounded slightly wistful, and, indeed, the six weeks of her elder sister's honeymoon had passed very slowly for Prudence and her younger sister, Chastity, left behind in London. The sheer effort of keeping their household running smoothly, eking out their meager finances, all the while ensuring that their father's willful ignorance of the family's financial situation remained undisturbed, took a much greater toll when there were only two of them to manage it. On occasion in the last weeks, Prudence and Chastity had both had to fight the temptation to force their father to acknowledge reality, a reality that he had caused by a more than foolish investment just after their mother's death. But the memory of their mother had kept them silent. Lady Duncan would have protected her husband's peace of mind at all costs, so her daughters must do the same.
When they added to that struggle the burden of putting out the broadsheet, The Mayfair Lady, every two weeks, without Constance's editorial expertise, and trying to stay on top of the Go-Between, their matchmaking agency, it was no wonder she and Chastity fell exhausted into a dreamless sleep every night, Prudence reflected.
The doorbell from the shop at the front of the house chimed as a customer entered and Mrs. Beedle hurried away to attend to the counter, smoothing her pristine apron as she did so. Prudence drank deeply from her refilled cup and helped herself to a second piece of gingerbread. It was warm and tranquil in the kitchen behind the shop. She could hear Mrs. Beedle's chattily cheerful voice interspersed with that of another woman, rather shrill and high-pitched, complaining about the poor quality of the butcher's lamb chops.
Prudence stretched her legs towards the range and sighed, grateful for the brief respite from the workaday concerns, and idly riffled through the envelopes addressed to The Mayfair Lady that were sent poste restante to Mrs. Beedle's corner shop in Kensington. The editors of The Mayfair Lady had to preserve their anonymity at all costs.
The thick vellum envelope had a distinctly official feel to it. The printed address in the top left-hand corner read Falstaff, Harley & Greenwold. Prudence felt a chill of apprehension. It sounded like a firm of lawyers. She reached for the butter knife, intending to slit the envelope, and then put it down again with a quick, unconscious shake of her head. The sisters had an unspoken convention that they opened correspondence relating to their shared endeavors together. And if this one brought bad news, and Prudence found herself fancying a miasmic vapor oozing from the vellum, it was most definitely not to be opened alone.
She thrust all the letters into her capacious handbag and drained her teacup. Mrs. Beedle was still engaged with her customer when Prudence went out through the shop, drawing on her gloves.
"Thank you for the tea, Mrs. Beedle."
"Oh, it's always nice to see you, Miss Prue." The shopkeeper beamed at her. "And Miss Chas, of course. Bring her with you next week. I'll make some of my lardy cake, I know how she likes that."
"She'll be sorry she missed the gingerbread, but she had to visit an old friend this afternoon," Prudence said with a smile, nodding politely to the customer, who was regarding her curiously. A lady with a Mayfair accent wearing a rather elegant afternoon gown was something of a novelty in a corner shop in Kensington, particularly when she appeared from the owner's quarters in the back.
Prudence picked up a copy of The Mayfair Lady in the magazine rack at the back of the shop. "If you're looking for something to read, ma'am, you might enjoy this publication." She held it out to the woman, who was so surprised, she took it.
"Well, I don't know," she said. "Mayfair Lady . . . sounds a bit hoity-toity for the likes of me."
"Oh, it's not at all," Prudence reassured warmly. "Mrs. Beedle reads it, I know."
"Aye, that I do, once in a while," the shopkeeper said. "You try it, Mrs. Warner. Just the ticket on a cold afternoon when you're knitting by the fire."
"I don't have much call for reading," the customer said doubtfully. "How much is it?" She turned the broadsheet around in her hands, as if unsure what to do with it.
"Just twopence," Prudence said. "You'd be surprised how much of interest there is inside."
"Well, I don't know, but I suppose . . ." The customer's voice trailed off as she opened her purse for two pennies that she laid on the counter. "I'll try it."
"You do that," Mrs. Beedle said. "And I tell you what, if you don't like it, you just bring it back and I'll refund the twopence."
Mrs. Warner brightened visibly. "Well, you can't say fairer than that, Mrs. Beedle."
Prudence raised a mental eyebrow. How were they supposed to make money out of the broadsheet when people read it "on approval"? But she couldn't say that to Mrs. Beedle, who only meant well, so with a cheerful farewell she left the shop, going out into a chilly afternoon that was already drawing in even though it was barely four-thirty. Autumn seemed to have come earlier than usual this year, she thought, but perhaps it was only in contrast to the long and unusually hot summer that had preceded it.
She hurried towards an omnibus stop, thinking again of Constance in the desert heat of Egypt. It was all right for some, she concluded as the motorized omnibus belching steam came to a halt at the stop. She climbed on, paid her penny fare, and took a seat by the window, watching the streets of London crawl by as the bus stopped and started at the behest of passengers.
She wondered how Chastity's afternoon had progressed. Despite what Prudence had told Mrs. Beedle, her sister hadn't been visiting an old friend. Chastity, in her role as Aunt Mabel, was in fact writing her responses to a trio of problem letters from beleaguered readers, for publication in the next edition of the broadsheet. Prudence had left her chewing the top of her pen, bewailing crossed nibs that splattered ink all over everywhere, and trying to think of a diplomatic way to shoot down Desperate in Chelsea, who seemed to think that her elderly parents had no right to spend any of their capital on frivolous pursuits while their daughter was waiting for her inheritance.
She hopped off the bus at Oxford Street and walked up Baker Street towards Portman Square. She turned onto Manchester Square, her cheeks pinkened by the freshening breeze, and ran up the steps to No. 10. Jenkins opened the door for her just as she put her key in the lock.
"Thought that was you, Miss Prue, when I heard the key."
"I was visiting your sister," she said, stepping into the hall. "She sent her greetings."
"Hope she's in good health."
"She certainly seemed to be. Is Chas upstairs?"
"She hasn't put her head out of the parlor all afternoon."
"Oh, poor love," Prudence said. "Did she have tea?"
At that Jenkins smiled. Chastity's sweet tooth was a family joke. "Mrs. Hudson made a chocolate sponge this afternoon. Miss Chas had three slices. It bucked her up a little, if I might say so. She was looking a little peaky before."
"Inky probably," Prudence said with a laugh as she hurried to the staircase. She paused halfway and asked over her shoulder, "Is Lord Duncan dining in tonight, do you know, Jenkins?"
"I don't believe so, Miss Prue. Mrs. Hudson's made a nice shepherd's pie for you and Miss Chas with the cold lamb from Sunday's roast."
If one had to eat leftovers, mutton was infinitely more palatable than fish, Prudence reflected. She opened the door to the parlor that she and her sisters had shared since their mother's death just four years previously. It was a pleasant, lived-in room, somewhat shabby and faded, and rather cluttered. Even more so this afternoon. Chastity sat at the secretaire, knee deep in scrunched-up balls of paper, evidence of frustrating literary effort. She turned as her sister came in.
"Oh, I'm glad you're back, now I can stop this." She ran her hands through her curly red hair that had escaped its ribbons during the throes of composition and now fell loose to her shoulders. She stretched and rolled her shoulders. "I never thought I'd lose sympathy for these tormented souls but some of them are so childish and spoiled . . . Oh, wait. I have something to show you. Jenkins brought it up half an hour ago."
Her tone had completely changed and she jumped up, walking energetically to the sideboard. "See here." She flourished a newspaper. "The Pall Mall Gazette. Con said it would happen!"
"What would happen?" Prudence ran her eye over the paper and saw the answer. She whistled soundlessly at the headline. peer of the realm in vice scandal. She began to read the text. " 'The earl of Barclay has been accused in the pages of the anonymous broadsheet The Mayfair Lady of violating his youthful maidservants and abandoning them pregnant and poverty-stricken on the streets.' "
Her voice faded as she continued reading under her breath, aware that Chastity probably knew the article by heart by now. When she reached the end she looked up at her sister, who was regarding her expectantly. Chastity said, "They actually interviewed the women Con used in the article."
"And they offer their own condemnation of the licentious peer, in their own inimitable style," Prudence observed. "Full of almost religious fervor, trumpeting condemnation for such lewd behavior while titillating their readers with scandalous details."
"It's exactly what we all hoped would happen," Chastity said. "Just four weeks after the original Mayfair Lady article. That only produced a few behind-the-hand whispers and the occasional glare for Barclay from straitlaced Society matrons. His own cronies didn't turn a hair and he seemed to ignore it totally. I thought it had all blown over now. But when this hits the streets and the clubs and the drawing rooms, he'll be pilloried."
"Yes," Prudence agreed, but she sounded uneasy. She opened her handbag and took out the official-looking envelope. "This was in the mail."
"What is it?"
"It looks like it's from a firm of solicitors."
"Oh," Chastity took the envelope and turned it over as if she could intuit its contents. "I suppose we'd better open it." Prudence handed her a paper knife and she slit the envelope, withdrawing a densely covered sheet of vellum. She began to read, Prudence at her shoulder.
"Oh, hell!" Prudence said when she'd reached the end. Even through the dreadful, obfuscating legalese the message was clear as a bell.
"Why's Barclay suing us for libel--or rather, The Mayfair Lady--and not the Pall Mall Gazette?" wondered Chastity. "It has much more clout than we do."
"The Gazette only came out today," Prudence said glumly. "We came out guns blazing a whole month ago. He's had four weeks to put this together. And if he wins this case he can go after the Gazette."
"So, what do we do?" Chastity nibbled her bottom lip as she reread the letter. "It says they will be seeking punitive damages of the highest degree possible on behalf of their client. What does that mean?"
"I have no idea . . . nothing good, you can be sure of that." Prudence flung herself into the depths of the chesterfield, kicking off her shoes. "We need advice."
"We need Con." Her sister perched on the arm of a chair and crossed her legs, swinging one ankle restlessly against the corner of the sofa table.
"What in God's name is Max going to think of this?"
"It won't do his career much good if it comes out that his wife wrote the original," Chastity said gloomily.
"We're going to have to make sure it doesn't come out, for the sake of all our enterprises, but I don't see how we can keep it from Max." Prudence picked up the letter from the table where Chastity had let it fall. "Oh, I didn't see this, right at the bottom here . . . 'In addition to damages for the libel concerning our client's relationships with his employees we will be seeking substantial damages for innuendo and inference regarding our client's financial practices.' "
"Did the Pall Mall Gazette pick up those hints we dropped?" Chastity reached over for the discarded paper. "I didn't see anything."
"No, they probably had the sense to leave it alone. There's no evidence for it, or at least none that we offered. I'm sure there's some somewhere, but we were all so fired up about nailing Barclay, we just threw everything in." Prudence sighed. "What naive idiots we are."
"No," Chastity said. "Were. We were, but I don't think we are anymore."
"A case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted," Prudence pointed out with a dour smile. She turned towards the door at a discreet knock.
"Would you like the sherry decanter in here, Miss Prue? Or will you be using the drawing room this evening?" Jenkins inquired.
"No, I don't think we're in the mood for the drawing room tonight," Prudence said. "We'll take sherry in here, and we'll eat shepherd's pie in the little dining parlor."
"Yes, I rather thought that would be your decision." Jenkins entered the room and set down the tray he was carrying. "What time shall I tell Mrs. Hudson you'd like dinner?" He poured two glasses and carried them over on a silver salver.
"Eight, I should think?" Prudence looked a question at her sister, who nodded her agreement. "And I don't think we shall dress, Jenkins. We'll serve ourselves, if you like. I'm sure you've got things you'd rather do this evening."
Excerpted from The Bride Hunt by Jane Feather. Copyright © 2004 by Jane Feather. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.