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'...