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The Secret Mistressby Mary Balogh
Lady Angeline Dudley was standing at the window of the taproom in the Rose and Crown Inn east of Reading. Quite scandalously, she was alone there, but what was she to do? The window of her own room looked out only upon a rural landscape. It was picturesque enough, but it was not the view she wanted. Only the taproom window offered that, looking out as it did upon the inn yard into which any new arrival was bound to ride.
Angeline was waiting, with barely curbed impatience, for the arrival of her brother and guardian, Jocelyn Dudley, Duke of Tresham. He was to have been here before her, but she had arrived an hour and a half ago and there had been no sign of him. It was very provoking. A string of governesses over the years, culminating in Miss Pratt, had instilled in her the idea that a lady never showed an excess of emotion, but how was one not to do so when one was on one's way to London for the Season-one's first-and one was eager to be there so that one's adult life could begin in earnest at last, yet one's brother had apparently forgotten all about one's very existence and was about to leave one languishing forever at a public inn a day's journey away from the rest of one's life?
Of course, she had arrived here ridiculously early. Tresham had arranged for her to travel this far under the care of the Reverend Isaiah Coombes and his wife and two children before they went off in a different direction to celebrate some special anniversary with Mrs. Coombes's relatives, and Angeline was transferred to the care of her brother, who was to come from London. The Coombeses arose each morning at the crack of dawn or even earlier, despite yawning protests from the junior Coombeses, with the result that their day's journey was completed almost before those of more normal persons even began.
The Reverend and Mrs. Coombes had been quite prepared to settle in and wait like long-suffering martyrs at the inn until their precious charge could be handed over to the care of His Grace, but Angeline had persuaded them to be on their way. What could possibly happen to her at the Rose and Crown Inn, after all? It was a perfectly respectable establishment-Tresham had chosen it himself, had he not? And it was not as if she was quite alone. There was Betty, her maid; two burly grooms from the stables at Acton Park, Tresham's estate in Hampshire; and two stout footmen from the house. And Tresham himself was sure to arrive any minute.
The Reverend Coombes had been swayed, against his better judgment, by the soundness of her reasoning-and by the anxiety of his wife lest their journey not be completed before nightfall, and by the whining complaints of Miss Chastity Coombes and Master Esau Coombes, aged eleven and nine respectively, that they would never get to play with their cousins if they had to wait here forever.
Angeline's patience had been severely tried by those two while she had been forced to share a carriage with them.
She had retired to her room to change out of her travel clothes and to have Betty brush and restyle her hair. She had then instructed her drooping maid to rest awhile, which the girl had done to immediate effect on the truckle bed at the foot of Angeline's own. Meanwhile Angeline had noticed that her window would give no advance notice whatsoever of the arrival of her brother, so she had left the room to find a more satisfactory window-only to discover the four hefty male servants from Acton arrayed in all their menacing largeness outside her door as though to protect her from foreign invasion. She had banished them to the servants' quarters for rest and refreshments, explaining by way of persuasion that she had not noticed any highwaymen or footpads or brigands or other assorted villains hovering about the inn. Had they?
And then, alone at last, she had discovered the window she was searching for-in the public taproom. It was not quite proper for her to be there unescorted, but the room was deserted, so where was the harm? Who was to know of her slight indiscretion? If any persons came before Tresham rode into the inn yard, she would simply withdraw to her room until they left. When Tresham arrived, she would dash up to her room so that when he entered the inn, she could be descending the stairs, all modest respectability, Betty behind her, as though she were just coming down to ask about him.
Oh, it was very hard not to bounce around with impatience and excitement. She was nineteen years old, and this was almost the first time she had been more than ten miles from Acton Park. She had lived a very sheltered existence, thanks to a stern, overprotective father and an absentee overprotective brother after him, and thanks to a mother who had never taken her to London or Bath or Brighton or any of the other places she herself had frequented.
Angeline had entertained hopes of making her come-out at the age of seventeen, but before she could muster all her arguments and begin persuading and wheedling the persons who held her fate in their hands, her mother had died unexpectedly in London and there had been a whole year of mourning to be lived through at Acton. And then last year, when all had been set for her come-out at the indisputably correct age of eighteen, she had broken her leg, and Tresham, provoking man, had flatly refused to allow her to clump into the queen's presence on crutches in order to make her curtsy and her debut into the adult world of the ton and the marriage mart.
By now she was ancient, a veritable fossil, but nevertheless a hopeful, excited, impatient one.
Angeline leaned her forearms along the windowsill and rested her bosom on them as she cocked her ear closer to the window.
And carriage wheels!
Oh, she could not possibly be mistaken.
She was not. A team of horses, followed by a carriage, turned in at the gate and clopped and rumbled over the cobbles to the far side of the yard.
It was immediately apparent to Angeline, however, that this was not Tresham. The carriage was far too battered and ancient. And the gentleman who jumped down from inside it even before the coachman could set down the steps bore no resemblance to her brother. Before she could see him clearly enough to decide if he was worth looking at anyway, though, her attention was distracted by the deafening sound of a horn blast, and almost simultaneously another team and another coach hove into sight and drew to a halt close to the taproom door.
Again, it was not Tresham's carriage. That had been apparent from the first moment. It was a stagecoach.
Angeline did not feel as great a disappointment as might have been expected, though. This bustle of human activity was all new and exciting to her. She watched as the coachman opened the door and set down the steps and passengers spilled out onto the cobbles from inside and clambered down a rickety ladder from the roof. Too late she realized that, of course, all these people were about to swarm inside for refreshments and that she ought not to be here when they did. The inn door was opening even as she thought it, and the buzz of at least a dozen voices all talking at once preceded their owners inside, but only by a second or two.
If she withdrew now, Angeline thought, she would be far more conspicuous than if she stayed where she was. Besides, she was enjoying the scene. And besides again, if she went upstairs and waited for the coach to be on its way, she might miss the arrival of her brother, and it seemed somehow important to her to see him the moment he appeared. She had not seen him in the two years since their mother's funeral at Acton Park.
She stayed and assuaged her conscience by continuing to look out the window, her back to the room, while people called with varying degrees of politeness and patience for ale and pasties and one or two instructed someone to look sharp about it, and the someone addressed replied tartly that she had only one pair of hands and was it her fault the coach was running an hour late and the passengers had been given only a ten-minute stop instead of half an hour?
Indeed, ten minutes after the coach's arrival, the passengers were called to board again if they did not want to get left behind, and they hurried or straggled out, some complaining vociferously that they had to abandon at least half their ale.
The taproom was soon as empty and silent as it had been before. No one had had time to notice Angeline, a fact for which she was profoundly grateful. Miss Pratt even now, a full year after moving on to other employment, would have had a fit of the vapors if she could have seen the full taproom with her former pupil standing alone at the window. Tresham would have had a fit of something far more volcanic.
No matter. No one would ever know.
Would he never come?
Angeline heaved a deep sigh as the coachman blew his yard of tin again to warn any persons or dogs or chickens out on the street that they were in imminent danger of being mown down if they did not immediately scurry for safety. The coach rattled out through the gates, turning as it went, and disappeared from sight.
The gentleman's carriage was still at the far side of the yard, but now it had fresh horses attached. He was still here, then. He must be taking refreshments in a private parlor.
Angeline adjusted her bosom on her arms, wiggled herself into a more comfortable position, and proceeded to dream about all the splendors of the Season awaiting her in London.
Oh, she could not wait.
It did seem, however, that she had no choice but to do just that.
Had Tresham even left London yet?
The gentleman whose carriage awaited him at the far side of the inn yard was not taking refreshments in a private parlor. He was doing so in the public taproom, his elbow resting on the high counter. The reason Angeline did not realize he was there was that he did not slurp his ale and did not talk aloud to himself.
Edward Ailsbury, Earl of Heyward, was feeling more than slightly uncomfortable. And he was feeling annoyed that he had been made to feel so. Was it his fault that a young woman who was clearly a lady was in the taproom with him, quite alone? Where were her parents or her husband or whoever it was that was supposed to be chaperoning her? There was no one in sight except the two of them.
At first he had assumed she was a stagecoach passenger. But when she had made no move to scurry outside when the call to board again came, he noticed that of course she was not dressed for the outdoors. She must be a guest at the inn, then. But she really ought not to have been allowed to wander where she had no business being, embarrassing perfectly innocent and respectable travelers who were trying to enjoy a glass of ale in peace and respectability before continuing the journey to London.
To make matters worse-considerably worse-she was leaning forward and slightly down in order to rest her bosom on her forearms along the windowsill, with the result that her back was arched inward like an inverted bow, and her derriere was thrust outward at a provocative angle. Indeed, Edward found himself drinking his ale less to slake the thirst of the journey than to cool an elevated body temperature.
It was a very shapely derriere.
And to make matters even worse, if that were possible, the dress she wore was of fine muslin and clung to her person in places where it would be kinder to innocent males for it not to cling. It did not help that the dress was of a bright, luminous pink the likes of which shade Edward had never before encountered in a fabric or anywhere else for that matter. The woman could have been seen with the naked eye from a distance of five miles. He was considerably closer to her than that.
He was further annoyed over the undeniable fact that he was ogling her-or one part of her anatomy, anyway. And, while he was ogling her with his eyes, his head was fairly humming with lascivious thoughts. He resented both facts-and her. He prided himself upon always treating ladies with the utmost respect. And not just ladies. He treated women with respect. Eunice Goddard had once pointed out to him during one of their many lengthy conversations-not that he could not have worked it out for himself-that women of all walks of life were persons, despite what the church and the law might have to say to the contrary, and not mere objects to cater to man's baser instincts.
He respected Eunice's opinions. She had a fine mind, which she had cultivated with extensive reading and thoughtful observations of life. He hoped to marry her, though he realized that his family might find his choice disappointing now that he was Earl of Heyward instead of plain Mr. Edward Ailsbury.
His carriage-his ancient embarrassment of a carriage, which his mother had begged him to bring to London because she could never seem to get comfortable in any newer one she had ever ridden in-was ready to leave, Edward could see through the window over the pink lady's head. He had intended to eat something as well as drink before resuming his journey, but she had ruined that plan. It was not right for him to be here with her-though it was not his fault that he was placing her in such a potentially compromising position. And it was not his fault that the ale was not cooling his blood one iota.
Though Eunice might argue with that, about its not being his fault, that is. The woman had done nothing to provoke his reaction, after all, beyond being here with her bright-pink-clad derriere elevated in his direction. And he could have gone to the dining room to eat, though he would then have felt obliged to order a full-blown meal.
He set his not-quite-empty glass down on the counter as silently as he could and straightened up. He would leave and take his grudge against her with him. He had not even seen her face. She might be as ugly as sin.
An unworthy, spiteful thought.
He shook his head in exasperation.
But then, before he could take a step toward the outer door and freedom from temptation and other ills, the door opened from the outside and a man stepped inside.
From the Hardcover edition.
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