Knock. Knock. Knock.
The harsh rap of her knuckles on the large oak door reverberated up Miss Juliana Pryce’s arm, but she stalwartly pressed onward. Knock. Knock. Knock. She tried the doorbell a few times to no avail, and desperation lent her the strength to slam her fist against the door. The chill of the early winter wind bit at her bones and the sun was a mere decoration in the gray overcast sky, for it afforded no heat to her body. This autumn promised to be dreary and bitingly cold. Perhaps it might even snow this December.
The door opened, and a sharp breath of relief left her. “I’m Miss Juliana Pryce, and I am here to call upon Lord Spencer Prendergast. Please announce me immediately. It is about to start raining.”
The butler looked down his nose at her, and Juliana winced, perfectly capable of imagining her own bedraggled appearance. She’d jumped from a moving carriage and then had hidden in the bushes for quite a long time. Her trek to London had been long, frightening, and had involved traveling for some time in a hay cart, before striding up the cobbled streets of Mayfair.
“Lord Prendergast is not at home to callers,” the butler said with a small wrinkle of his nose.
“My good man, you’ll inform him that Miss Juliana Pryce, sister to Mr. Robert Pryce, requests an audience most urgently. They are friends, and I must prevail upon him regarding a request from my brother. Forgive my rudeness, but I will not leave until I have seen the earl. Even if I have to stand here and make a spectacle of myself for hours which I assure you will cause terrible speculation.”
An empty threat, but given her air of desperation and dishevelment, the man might believe her. And he did, for he eased the door open and allowed her inside.
“May I take your coat and bonnet?”
With trembling fingers, she untied the strings to her bonnet and coat, handing them over to the waiting butler. He led her down the long hallway and into a small room, which seemed to be a private parlor. Once there, she made her way to the fire, grateful for the crackling flames. The room appeared to be decorated in the late Baroque style, or Rococo with considerable ornamentation, but in anachronistic reds and purples.
The color scheme was rather oppressive, especially against the ornamentation of gilded moldings and cluttered surfaces. An ormolu clock of great size, and fantastical design, sat on the overmantel. It was embellished with nymphs, putti, and forest creatures, which Juliana thought were particularly unflattering.
The plethora of trinkets and baubles appeared to have been chosen for their cost, rather than in any aesthetic style or overall plan. The room shrieked ‘I am wealthy and do not have a jot of taste.’ Juliana noticed overstuffed upholstery and tasseled cushions in a variety of complicated patterns. She did not sit in any of them, feeling somewhat overpowered by the décor and fearing she would be sucked into the overwhelming chintz and tapestries. Juliana didn’t have to wait long for the door to open and Lord Prendergast to enter.
Juliana observed a gentleman in his mid-thirties with a high complexion and excessive dark eyebrows that seemed to take over his face. They were in contrast to his brutally shorn mousy hair and somewhat sparse mustache. His waistline was already showing a tendency to corpulence, and she suspected it would not be long before he gained at least an extra chin.
“Miss Pryce!” he said, considerably surprised. “Are you aware of the hour?”
“I think it might be as early as ten, my lord. I interrupted you breaking your fast. I apologize.”
He hesitated, his gaze sweeping the room. “You are without a chaperon.”
A shaky laugh slipped from her. “I am afraid I am, but it could not be helped. And at my advanced age of four and twenty, I believe I am allowed some leniency from propriety.”
His gaze raked over her, coolly appraising. “I can see that you’ve had a go of it. Please, tell me what has driven you to my doorstep at this hour.”
“My brother…Mr. Robert Pryce…before he left for America, he named you as a gentleman I could visit should I ever need help.”
“Yes, Robert and I are acquaintances,” he murmured, sitting on a wing back chair near the fireplace.
She noted the distinction in his words and that he did not claim friendship. Her brother was very wealthy. Many fine people of society clamored to be his ‘friend,’ even if they were tentative about inviting him to their elevated circles. A shiver of foreboding went through her, and she shrugged it away. Given her morning, it was easy to be suspicious about everything.
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