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To Catch A Countess

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“I understand Countess Ashbridge will be attending the ball tonight,” Mrs. Copeland said, looking out the window of the carriage. “She’s returned from the Continent now that her father has passed, God rest his soul.”

Prudence turned to look at her mother, and after a split-second too long, opened her mouth in a way she knew her mother hated. “Charlotte Ashbridge?” she asked, voice a touch too high.

Her mother’s sharp ears caught the squeak in her voice, and she turned to give Prudence a knowing look. “Shut your mouth, or you’ll catch flies.” Acting properly chastised, Prudence snapped her mouth shut with a click. “She is a Countess now, so you should not address her so informally. You know they will be looking for any crack in our façade,” she added, pursing her lips in distaste. “Never mind that your father has more money than most of them put together, we’re still little more than jumped-up peasants. A title in the family will make your father’s business dealings so much easier, which is why you must put on a good showing tonight.”

Prudence tuned out the rest of her mother’s lecture on the proper way to woo the upper classes. They were already a month into the Season and she’d heard it before every event so far; she could probably repeat it verbatim. Instead, she let her mind wander to Lottie—now Lady Charlotte, Countess of Ashbridge. The night before the she had left for France, Lottie had climbed the tree outside Prudence’s bedroom to say goodbye, promising she’d write. “It’ll be a jolly good time, Prue,” she’d said, curled up on the bed next to Prudence. “I’ll tell you all about it, and you can write me and remind me why I’m staying away,” she’d added with a slightly tearful laugh.

Prudence felt her face heating and shook herself out of the memory, unsurprised that her mother’s denunciation of upper-class hypocrisy was still continuing. Between her mother’s distraction and the single lantern, Prudence hoped her flushed face would cool before her mother noticed and asked questions.

The carriage slowed to a crawl as they approached the street outside Ambassador Carlyle’s town home, the line of guests stretching out for a mile. She sighed and slumped back against the seat as much as her tightly-laced corset would allow. “It would be faster if we walked from here,” she muttered.

Her mother’s scandalized intake of breath was almost funny enough to cheer Prudence up. “And be seen walking? The ton would never forgive such a faux pas.”

“This is so silly,” she muttered, attempting to keep the annoyance out of her tone. By the glare her mother shot her, she only partially succeeded.

For the next half hour, as the carriage slowly proceeded toward the door, Mrs. Copeland ran through an updated ranking of Prudence’s ideal suitors, all impoverished peers. “You should be sure to speak to the Duke of Markham’s youngest son if he’s in attendance. He’s just come back from the Continent, you know. He’s not the heir, but the future Duke married one of Viscount Edderly’s sons, and the second son is still unmarried and in the army. It’s entirely possible that you would bear the next Duke of Markham, and the current Duke is in debt up to his eyeballs. Your dowry will be very attractive.”

“Lord George Lyndon is a pompous fool who spends his meager allowance on bad horses and loose women. The only reason he left France is because his father cut off his allowance,” Prudence pointed out. “And has horrible teeth.”

Her mother’s expression soured even further. “He’s an aristocrat, Prudence. They all have their foibles.”

A knock at the carriage door kept her from having to answer that, and a liveried footman helped first her mother and then Prudence down from the vehicle. Mrs. Copeland gave Prudence a hard look, and straightened the ties of her bonnet. “Now remember,” she murmured, her voice pitched so only Prudence could hear her, “you mustn’t flirt too much tonight. The gossips will be out in force, and we don’t want you labeled as a title-chasing hussy of a merchant’s daughter.”

Prudence nodded, refraining from pointing out that she was both a title-chaser and a merchant’s daughter as the pair of them made their entrance into the large candle-lit ballroom. Her mother handed a card to the butler, who announced them as “Mrs. David Copeland, of Bristol, and Miss Prudence Copeland.”

Several heads turned as they descended the steps, and Prudence pasted a bland smile on her face. Most of the men and a few women looked intrigued, knowing that if a Missus and a Miss had been invited, they must have money to offset their lack of title. The majority of the women, especially those her mother’s age and older, shot the pair of them dirty glares, seeing Prudence as competition for their own blue-blooded sons and daughters. The Marriage Mart, Prudence knew, was a bloodsport.

Mrs. Copeland raised her chin slightly, and gave the nearest group of matrons a steely look. “Let us go get some punch,” Prudence’s mother said, taking her elbow and steering them toward the refreshments.

Fortified with punch and a delicious bit of iced pastry, Mrs. Copeland led Prudence on a slow circuit of the ballroom, stopping occasionally to speak to a friend and a good number of Mr. Copeland’s business acquaintances. Prudence did her best to make small talk, and agreed to several dances, but even as the crowd grew from a XYZ to a full-blown crush, she still had not managed to catch a glimpse of the Countess of Ashbridge.

As if her musings had produced the woman from thin air, the butler’s voice rang out over the assembled guests: “Presenting The Right Honorable The Countess of Ashbridge, and The Most Honorable, The Dowager Countess of Ashbridge.” Prudence looked up from her conversation with Lady Belmont, an older woman in line to inherit her father’s viscountcy, and found herself staring. Lottie—no, Lady Charlotte—wore a silk gown in a scandalous shade of red, with a bodice that dipped low to highlight her generous bosom. Her dark hair was piled up on her head, and even from this distance, Prudence could see the sparkle of diamonds among the glossy curls. Her skin, no longer browned from summer days spent riding horses and rambling through the hills outside Bristol, was like cream in the candlelight. She looked unattainably beautiful, and something in Prudence’s chest clenched.

Lady Belmont cleared her throat, and Prudence blushed, embarrassed to be caught staring. “My apologies, my lady,” she said, dropping her gaze to her slippered feet. “I did not mean to offend.”

But Belmont only laughed. “The joys of youth should not be squandered, Miss Copeland,” she said. “I understand that your family owns property near the Ashbridge estate?”

Prudence nodded, pleased that she’d not misstepped too badly. She genuinely liked Lady Belmont. “Yes. The new Countess and I were friendly as children, though I’ve not seen her since she began traveling the continent.”

“The friendships we begin when we are young are often all the stronger from being apart,” Lady Belmont said, her voice turning wistful. “Lord Belmont and I—well, you aren’t interested in the musings of an old woman.” Before Prudence could protest that Lady Belmont was no such thing—she couldn’t have been more than forty—the woman continued, cheerful smile back in place. “But I would be very pleased if you find yourself with a dance reserved for me.”

“Of course, my lady,” Prudence said, holding up her dance card. “Perhaps a quadrille?”

Belmont smiled again. “It would be my pleasure,” she said, and penciled her name on the corresponding line. “Until then, Miss Copeland,” she said, taking Prudence’s hand and bowing over it.

Prudence blushed a little as the older woman walked away. Lady Belmont was quite charming, and though she was into her middle years, she carried her age well. The silver streaks in her dark hair gave her an air of sophistication, and the crow’s feet at the edges of her eyes spoke of good humor. She never spoke down to Prudence, or made her feel lesser because of her lack of title. Prudence hoped that perhaps she could even call the lady a friend.

The sound of her name spoken in a soft, musical tone brought Prudence out of her reverie. She turned, a friendly smile on her face, only to have it drop away and her eyes widen. “Lottie? I mean, Lady Ashbridge,” she corrected quickly, dropping down into a polite curtsy. “My condolences on the death of your father,” she said as she straightened, meeting Lottie’s gaze.

“Prudence Copeland,” Lady Ashbridge said, her voice warm. “It’s been an age, hasn’t?”

Prudence stood up straight, and looked down at her childhood friend. They’d been of a height when Lottie had left for France, but in the years since, Prudence had grown several inches, while Lottie had stayed the same height—though she’d grown in other ways, Prudence was pleased to note. Her breasts were full and round, and from Prudence’s height, she could see the small shadow between them where the busk of her corset held them apart. Her hair was pinned up in a complicated series of twists and knots, and along with the diamonds Prudence had spotted across the room, seed pearls glowed warmly in the candlelight. They matched the long string that hung from Lottie’s slim neck, and the bracelet around her gloved wrist.

“How was your tour of the Continent, my lady?”

Lottie shrugged, slim shoulders rolling easily. “It was more relaxing than London during the Season, though running with the bulls in Pamplona did feel oddly familiar,” she said, her mouth twisting up and her eyes sparkling. “How has it been back here in jolly old England?”

“Much the same as always,” Prudence hedged, glancing around to see how many eyes were on the pair of them. “Well, until this Season. It’s my debut, you know. I haven’t been presented to the King, obviously, as father’s only a merchant, but Mother is hopeful I shall marry well. She’d like a title to go with all our money.” She paused and licked her lips, meeting Lottie’s gaze. “She’s certain I’m going to receive an offer soon. Perhaps even as soon as tonight.”

Lottie pursed her lips in irritation for a split second, then let the expression melt away. “Any specific prospects you have in mind?”

“Just one.” Prudence glanced down at Lottie’s hands, which were balled up in very un-ladylike fists at her sides. She’d always been the jealous type. “Mother has her sights set on Daniel, Lord Claymoore,” she added after a beat, “but I’m not convinced he’s serious.”

The tension in Lottie’s body released as she barked out a short laugh. “He’s a bore and a boor, with no head for business,” she said, pitching her voice low enough that only Prudence would hear her. “Your father would hate him on sight, and the loathing would only deepen once he got to know him.”

Prudence brought her fan up to her face to hide her smirk. “He is an aristocrat, Lady Ashbridge. They all have their foibles,” she said, parroting her mother. “Besides,” she added, leaning in further. “It’s not about the man, it’s about the title. You know that.”

Lottie scoffed, then visibly relaxed, her cheerful smile back in place. “And your brothers?”

“Full of foibles as well and hopeless to boot,” Prudence said with a quick grin. “At least, at the marriage market. They’re far too coarse, and they’re quite happy helping Father in Bristol. They couldn’t catch a titled peer with a net, let alone their personalities.”

“And you?” Lottie asked, voice low and intimate as she reached out to caress the back of Prudence’s gloved hand. “How have you been, Prue?”

Before Prudence could answer, her mother appeared, holding a cup of punch in each hand. “Oh my, Lady Ashbridge! How lovely to see you again. I was so sad to hear of your father’s passing. How is your mother?”

Lottie straightened up and released Prudence’s hand, leaving her free to take the cup from her mother. “Oh, she’s quite pleased to have me back in the country, and she’s been busy planning a party for my return to London society,” Lottie said, taking the other cup from Mrs. Copeland with a nod of thanks. “She was never keen on me leaving England in the first place, and the fact that I traveled to Spain and Italy, rather than staying in Paris like a good English girl should—well, it nearly gave her palpitations. She was terrified that a swarthy foreigner would steal my virtue,” she added in a whispered aside.

Mrs. Copeland grinned behind her fan. “Oh, dear. I hope none of them did?”

“Mrs. Copeland, you know me better than that!” Lottie said, looking scandalized. “I have returned to England with my virtue exactly as intact as it was when I left,” she said with a little wink in Prudence’s direction.

“Lady Ashbridge!” Mrs. Copeland mock-scolded, snapping her fan closed and tapping Lottie on the arm with it.

“Oh dear, I do hate to shock you,” Lottie drawled, looking not at all apologetic, a smirk still playing about the corners of her mouth. “But, you know my mother. No one is good enough for her little Countess,” she added, her gaze flicking back to Prudence for a split second. “She has her sights set on my marrying a Duke or a Marquess, so her grandchildren will be heirs to two important titles.” She pressed her lips into an angry line, but quickly shook herself and smiled. “Anyway, enough about Mother. Miss Copeland was telling me that your boys are all still in Bristol with Mr. Copeland?”

“Oh yes! They’ve all got quite the head for business, you know. All hard workers too.” She continued to extol the virtues of the three Copeland boys, which Prudence ignored in favor of watching the way Lottie’s smile became more genuine as she listened to Mrs. Copeland speak. “But of course, the fact that they’re in trade makes them practically unmarriageable,” Mrs. Copeland concluded, dropping her voice so only Lottie and Prudence could hear, “as if hard work were a dreadful disease once might catch. Still, a title in the family would open up certain doors that no amount of money can unlock, and so we’ve pinned our hopes on Prudence.”

Lottie looked over at Prudence, skimming her eyes up from Prudence’s satin slippers to her bright red hair. She couldn’t help but flush under such intense scrutiny, even knowing it was appreciative. She knew she looked too much like her father to be considered a beauty among the dainty flowers of the ton, but she was often called striking, and the fashionable gold silk dress made the most of her small bosom and accentuated her slender figure. Round emerald studs sparkled in her earlobes, matching an elegant emerald necklace that had once belonged to the Duchess-Consort of Wafford.

“I’m sure Miss Copeland will indeed marry well,” Lottie said finally, holding Prudence’s gaze. “Whoever takes her to wife will be extremely lucky.”

Prudence glanced around, seeing that more than a few attendees had worked their way closer to see what their unusual little group was speaking about, then asked, voice a touch too loud, “Perhaps you would do me the honor of a dance, Lady Ashbridge?”

Lottie’s smile widened and she reached for the card hanging from Prudence’s wrist. “Are your waltzes all spoken for, Miss Copeland?”

Ignoring her mother’s barely audible gasp, Prudence shook her head. “Not as yet, my lady.”

Lottie reached for the card and scribbled her name on the line for the first waltz of the evening. She took Prudence’s other hand and bowed over it, holding it slightly longer than propriety allowed. “Until the waltz, Miss Copeland.”

With a quick squeeze of Prudence’s hand, Lottie excused herself, leave Prudence alone with her mother. “Well, Lady Ashbridge is still quite the firebrand,” Mrs. Copeland said after a long moment of silence.

Prudence glanced over at her mother, noting the contemplative look on her face. “Is she on your list, Mama?”

Mrs. Copeland didn’t answer right away, bringing her closed fan up to her mouth thoughtfully. “Her mother would never allow it,” she said after a moment. “She ran the poor girl all the way out of England to keep the two of you apart. Fat lot of good that did,” she muttered. “Girl’s still gone on you.”

Prudence didn’t answer, squeezing her hand into a fist and crumpling the folded paper Lottie had slipped to her.

An hour and a half later, Prudence thanked her latest dance partner, and excused herself, glancing around to see how many people noticed her leave the ballroom. She headed straight for the manor’s library, stopping in front of the closed wooden door for a moment to check if she’d been followed. Secure that she hadn’t, she let herself in and sat heavily down on a plush settee.

“I wasn’t sure you’d come.”

Prudence jumped at the sound of Lottie’s voice, looking around to spot the other woman sitting in a wingback chair, a snifter of amber liquid in her hand. “Of course I came.” She extracted the now-crumpled half sheet of paper from her reticule. “Meet me at half past eleven in the library. C,” she read, then glanced to the clock over the fireplace. “I’m a bit late,” she added with an apologetic smile.

Lottie grinned at her, and crossed the room to sit next to Prudence on the settee. “God, I’ve missed you, Prue,” she said, the words falling out in a rush. “Being away from you was somehow easier when you were several countries away. Being here in England, in London, and having to keep my distance—” She trailed off, taking a generous swig of the brandy. “It’s been torture,” she spat.

Prudence rolled her eyes, but couldn’t stifle her smile. “You’re so melodramatic, Lottie.” She leaned in, bumping her shoulder into Lottie’s. “I’ve missed you too,” she admitted, twisting her hands in her lap.

Lottie passed the snifter to Prudence, with an answering shoulder nudge. Prudence licked her lips and hesitated for a moment, but the challenging smirk on Lottie’s face made her reach for the glass. The brandy warmed her from within almost as much as the touch of Lottie’s fingers on hers as she handed it back.

They sat in silence for long minutes, passing the brandy back and forth and watching the flames dance in the fireplace. Finally, it was empty, and Lottie set it on the table, and turned to Prudence. “Can I kiss you?” she whispered, her voice curling around Prudence like a warm fur cloak. “Or are your kisses spoken for?”

Instead of answering, Prudence leaned in, cupping Lottie’s face with her free hand and pressing their lips together. She swallowed Lottie’s surprised gasp, licking into her mouth, chasing the taste of brandy and Lottie’s pleased moan. The hand on Prudence’s knee tightened, and Lottie’s tongue teased her own, coaxing her to open further.

Prudence groaned and gasped when Lottie sunk her teeth into Prudence’s lower lip. Slick warmth gathered between Prudence’s legs, and she pressed her thighs tightly together, sending a thrill up her spine. She reached up to cup her hand around one of Lottie’s breasts, feeling the nipple harden through the silk. “Lottie,” she whispered, reverent, rolling the tight nub between her fingers.

“Prudence, my Prudence,” Lottie responded, tossing a leg over one of Prudence’s thighs and settling a knee between them. “I saw you dancing with all those men and women tonight, Prue, and it burned me up inside. I wanted to march across the dance floor and drag you away, show them who you truly belong to,” she growled, leaning down to suck hard on the pale column of Prudence’s throat. “From now on, you’re mine. No more sneaking around, no more lying. I’m getting you up in front of a vicar and neither God nor my mother will deny us.”

Prudence whimpered as Lottie released her, the slight throb of pain on her neck making it clear she would have a dark bruise the same size as Lottie’s mouth. Bracing against Prudence’s shoulders, Lottie ground down on her thigh, and even through two skirts and the attendant undergarments, Prudence could feel the damp heat of Lottie’s desire. Lottie rolled her hips and leaned in, nipping at Prudence’s lips and rocking her knee against the apex of Prudence’s thighs.

Startled by the intensity of the touch, Prudence bucked up with a pleased moan, nearly unseating Lottie. They both giggled as Lottie regained her balance. “Sorry,” Prudence said, resting her hands on Lottie’s plump hips, feeling the line of her stays through the skin-warm red silk.

“Don’t be.” Lottie leaned in and pressed their foreheads together, her hips moving in fits and starts. “We can still stop if you want to, Prue. We can find a different way, one where you won’t end up in the gossip pages—”

Prudence cut her off with a harsh kiss. “Stop being ridiculous. This is my plan, remember? Besides,” she said, leaning in for another kiss, “it’s kind of exciting, the thought of getting caught.”

Lottie laughed and started moving again, rubbing herself off against the strong line of Prudence’s thigh. Her fingers gripped Prudence’s shoulders tightly, and her well-manicured nails dug into the skin above the neckline of Prudence’s dress. Prudence leaned in to press a kiss to Lottie’s lips, drinking in the little noises she made as she chased her pleasure, and feeling her own cunt tighten in response.

Lottie came with a soft cry, her rhythm faltering. Prudence held her close as she melted against Prudence’s chest, her face buried in the crook of Prudence’s neck. “So good,” she slurred. “So good, Prue.”

They lay like that for a few more moments, the sharp edge of Prudence’s arousal tapering off to a dull throb as she stroked Lottie’s back. Lottie was warm and soft in her arms, and Prudence’s heart tripped at the idea of a future spent waking up together, sleepy kisses and slow, reverent morning sex, taking Lottie apart and putting her back together piece by piece. She squeezed Lottie a little too hard, and pressed her forehead into Lottie’s shoulder.

Lottie sat up, frowning. “Prue, is everything all right?”

Prudence just nodded, her face still hidden.

Lottie didn’t let that go, instead cupping Prudence’s chin in her hand and tipping it up until their eyes met. “I don’t want you to regret this,” she said, her brown eyes fierce.

“I don’t. I won’t,” Prudence said fiercely. “I want you, Lottie. So much. In every way. Forever.”

Lottie’s hungry smile sent Prudence’s heart into overdrive, and she leaned in for a greedy kiss. “Good,” she said, adding a few more kisses for good measure, before sliding gracefully to the floor. “Last chance,” she said as she rubbed her cheek against Prudence’s silk-covered knees, brown eyes wide and beseeching

In response, Prudence spread her thighs as wide as her skirts would allow.

“Mine,” Lottie whispered, low enough that Prudence didn’t think she was supposed to hear it, before she shoved the skirts up above Prudence’s knees and ducked under them. Prudence gasped as warm, damp air ghosted over the split in her bloomers, followed by a single finger tracing a wet line up her pussy. “So wet for me,” Lottie murmured.

Lottie pressed her mouth to the apex of Prudence’s thighs, causing Prue’s answer to turn into a wordless moan. Lottie licked slowly up the length of Prudence’s cunt, a flick of her tongue sending pleasure sparking up Prue’s spine. As she repeated the movement, Prudence jammed a knuckle into her mouth to quiet herself, biting down hard enough to leave an imprint on the soft kidskin.

A finger probed at her entrance, and Prudence had a split second to hope Lottie had removed her own glove before it slid in up to the second knuckle. Prudence rocked her hips as Lottie pumped first one finger then two in and out of her, Lottie’s tongue still working over her clit fast and hard. Too soon and yet not soon enough, she gasped out Lottie’s name. “I’m— I’m going to—”

Orgasm washing over her, Prudence let out a shuddering groan, throwing her head back as her muscles tense and released. Lottie refused to let up, sucking on Prudence’s clit hard and curling her fingers until Prudence came again, Lottie’s name on her lips.

“I believe I’ve found her, Mrs. Copeland.”

Even though she had been expecting—no, counting on—an interruption of this nature, Prudence felt her face flush hot. She took a deep breath and turned to see Lady Belmont standing in the doorway of the library, and coming up behind her, Prudence’s mother. Mrs. Copeland looked absolutely scandalized, rushing through the open door. “Prudence! What are you— Who is— Oh, blast it all!”

Prudence bit her bottom lip as Lottie flicked her tongue once last time and withdrew her fingers. She disentangled herself from Prudence’s skirts, and grinned up at the other people in the room. “I can explain,” she said, not bothering to stand up from her position between Prudence’s legs, or wipe the evidence of Prudence’s orgasms from her lips.

“Oh, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Lady Belmont said, hiding a smirk behind her gloved hand. “We certainly understand what’s going on. The issue at hand is, what, Countess Ashbridge, do you intend to do about it?”

“Oh, Prue,” Mrs. Copeland said, pacing the library. “People saw you leave the ballroom! They saw Lady Ashbridge leave the ballroom. You’ve both been gone ages, and your waltz was already setting the gossips abuzz. It was practically a declaration of intent! It’s not a leap to consider what might have happened once you disappeared.” She rubbed her temples. “I am going to find the Dowager Countess,” she said, reluctance obvious in her voice, “if Lady Belmont would be so kind as to chaperon you two—though that horse has already left the barn and run halfway to Yorkshire by now,” she added in an harsh undertone, “and we will discuss this situation and what we can do to salvage it.”

Lady Belmont nodded regally toward Mrs. Copeland. “I would be happy to sit with them while you fetch the Dowager Countess. And perhaps a nip of brandy for yourself?” she suggested, arching her eyebrows meaningfully.

Mrs. Copeland nodded, tentatively at first, then becoming more certain. “Yes, I think that would be a good idea.” She turned to give Prudence and Lottie a hard stare, “I expect you both to be presentable when I return,” she said, her voice like granite. “This conversation will be difficult enough as it is.”

Both girls agreed demurely, and after Mrs. Copeland swept out the door, shutting it behind her, Prudence held out a hand to help Lottie up from the floor. As Belmont took a seat in the wingback chair, Lottie produced a handkerchief and cleaned herself up quietly, then passed the silk to Prudence to do the same.

An uncomfortable silence settled over the room, Prudence and Lottie throwing each other sideways glances while Belmont smirked from her chair. Prudence took in a breath, but Belmont raised a hand to stop her. “Whatever explanations you have, I don’t want to hear it. Save it for your mothers.”

Prudence nodded and dropped her gaze to her lap, where she began picking at the seam of her glove. After a moment, Lottie reached over and rested her hand on top of Prudence’s, and she stilled. “It’ll be alright, Prue,” she whispered, squeezing Prudence’s hand. “Don’t worry.”

Both girls jumped when the door opened, and turned as one to see Mrs. Copeland and the Dowager Countess enter. The pair were as different as two women could be: where Prudence’s mother was sturdy and stout, her iron-gray hair piled up in curls on her head, Lottie’s mother was a tiny wisp of a woman, her hair still dark and her blue eyes eagle-sharp. She carried a silver-tipped walking stick, and leaned heavily on it as she made her way toward the settee where the girls sat, fingers intertwined.

Lady Ashbridge stared at the couple for a long, silent minute, while Mrs. Copeland took a seat in a straight-backed chair. Finally, she met Prudence’s gaze. “I knew no good would come of associating with a merchant’s brat. I suppose you and your mother here conspired to trap my daughter in marriage?”

Mrs. Copeland gasped loudly, and Prudence felt her face heat with mingled anger and embarrassment. “My mother had nothing to do with this,” she spat. She moved to rise, but Lottie’s hand on her hip urged her to stay seated.

The Dowager scoffed and lowered herself onto the edge of the other wingback chair, keeping her back ramrod straight. “I would like to make this situation go away, Minerva,” she said, directing her words to Mrs. Copeland, but keeping her eye on Prudence. “Tell me how we do that.”

“Unfortunately, Mother,” Lottie said, giving Prudence’s hand a quick squeeze, “I don’t believe we can make it go away.”

The Dowager blinked in confusion, then looked at her daughter, surprise clear in her expression. “Excuse me?”

Lottie raised her chin and met her mother’s gaze head-on. “Unfortunately, we were quite indiscreet in our choice of meeting place,” she said. “As Mrs. Copeland pointed out, several people saw both Miss Copeland and I leave the ballroom, and it’s been long enough that our absence has certainly been noticed. Miss Copeland’s reputation has been ruined.”

“I don’t see how that’s any of our concern,” the Dowager responded.

Prudence bit back an angry retort when Lottie squeezed her hand again. “It is our concern, because her reputation is now inexorably tied to my own,” she said, meeting her mother’s gaze unflinchingly, a smirk playing around her lips. “As you well know, a peer’s word is their bond. I’ve been gone for years at this point; it would be disastrous if my first act as Countess would be to ruin a girl as lovely and rich as Miss Copeland and not do the right thing. I would be known as someone unwilling or unable to meet their obligations, and, as you well know, that would make conducting business difficult.”

Lady Ashbridge’s icy stare lingered on her daughter for another long moment. “This is blackmail.”

Lottie shrugged, and her smirk disappeared. “I learned from the best.”

“She’s a merchant’s daughter, Charlotte,” the Dowager said, her tone turning coaxing. “She only wants your money.”

Prudence couldn’t stifle her very unladylike snort of laughter. “Lady Ashbridge, my father owns one of the largest shipping companies in Europe, and my dowry is worth more than the entail on all the Ashbridge properties combined. I neither need nor want Lottie’s money. I never have.”

“Though we could certainly use yours,” Lottie muttered, low enough that her mother didn’t seem to catch it.

The Dowager turned to glare at Mrs. Copeland. “And you, Minerva, have you anything to say about this?”

Prudence’s mother had been watching the two girls, and startled a little when Lady Ashbridge addressed her. “Hmm? Oh, yes, well…” She met Prudence’s gaze, and Prue shot her a tiny, hopeful smile. Mrs. Copeland lifted her chin and looked straight into the Dowager’s face. “If you attempt to wriggle out of this, Josephine, I will use every connection my husband has built to ruin you and salt your fields.” The Dowager gasped in shock as Mrs. Copeland continued, taking on a harsher tone as she warmed up to her subject. “We have friends in powerful places, or did you think we received these invitations solely due to our money? And before you insist that no one would believe a lowly merchant’s wife,” she said, cutting off the Dowager’s complaint, “I believe Lady Belmont will back me up on this.”

Everyone turned to the lady in question, who, until now, had been sitting quietly in her chair. She smirked at the Dowager. “Of course, I can only report on what I’ve seen, but what I’ve seen has been—” She glanced at Lottie and Prudence. “It has been quite enlightening,” she finished.

Vibrating with barely-concealed irritation, the Dowager turned back to Lottie. “You hold the title now, Charlotte,” she pointed out. “I cannot stop you from marrying whomever you wish. Why in God’s name would you risk your reputation and that of your little tart to force me to agree to something I have no authority over?”

“Oh mother,” Lottie said, real regret tinging her voice, “could you tell me, truthfully, that you would have quietly accepted it, had I announced I intended to court Miss Copeland? That you wouldn’t have tried to engineer something to keep me from marrying her? Again?” The silent frown on the Dowager’s face was all the answer Lottie needed, and she sighed. “As I thought.”

Silence fell over the room, broken only by the crackling of the small fire in the grate. After a long moment, Mrs. Copeland sighed and turned to Lottie. “I cannot say I disapprove of this union, Lady Ashbridge,” she said, “but you have opened my daughter up to ruin and scandal by going about this the way you did. If you hurt my daughter, neither your title nor your mother will protect you from my wrath.”

Lottie dipped her head in acknowledgment. “I will do everything in my power to make her happy, Mrs. Copeland.”

Prudence’s mother relaxed a little, and smiled at the pair of them. “Well then, I shall have to write to Mr. Copeland and tell him he’s needed in Town for a wedding in a few weeks.” She turned and nodded to the elder Lady Ashbridge. “Josephine,” she said, causing the Dowager to scowl at the familiarity, “it seems we are to be family. I can’t say I saw this coming, but perhaps I should have.” She glanced over to Prudence and Lottie, still sitting together with their fingers intertwined. “Shall we call a truce?”

The Dowager scoffed and stood, refusing to look at either Mrs. Copeland or Prudence, her eyes boring into Lottie. “I will say nothing publicly against this travesty of a marriage, but do not expect me to ever approve of it. Or her,” she added, pointing at Prudence with a bony finger. Her pronouncement still ringing in the air, she stomped out of the room without looking back.

“I don’t,” Lottie said, staring at the empty space where her mother was.

“Well,” Lady Belmont said, cutting through the tension with a loud clap of her hands. “It seems you two ladies have a wedding to plan.” She stood and offered Mrs. Copeland a hand. “I would be honored to escort you back to the ballroom, Mrs. Copeland, Miss Copeland, or if you’d like to avoid a scene, to your carriage.”

Prudence flushed and leaned in to press a chaste kiss to Lottie’s cheek. “You’ll call on me tomorrow?” she asked, voice low.

Lottie smiled, the expression chasing the last of the shadows from her eyes. “Of course, love. Wild horses couldn’t keep me away.”

“I shall look forward to your visit, Lady Ashbridge,” Prudence murmured.

“It will be all I think of until we meet again, Miss Copeland,” Lottie responded.

Lady Belmont coughed loudly, and both Prudence and Lottie jumped. She and Mrs. Copeland stood by the door, both looking impatient. “If we wait much longer, this is going to become even more public than it already is.”

“Of course!” Prudence jumped to her feet. “Tomorrow,” she said, releasing Lottie’s hand with a final squeeze.

Lottie nodded and smiled. “Tomorrow, my love.”