The Secret Mistress

Lady Angeline Dudley, aged nineteen, is on her way to London for her come-out Season, and she cannot get there soon enough. She is at a posting inn, having been brought that far by her local vicar and his wife. She has persuaded them to go on their way to their own destination because she is expecting her brother, the Duke of Tresham, to arrive at any moment to take her the rest of the way. She is impatient for his arrival and is watching for him at the only window through which she will see him come. It happens to be in the public taproom and it is horribly scandalous for her to be there alone. But she does not expect to be disturbed. She is disturbed, as it happens, by the arrival of a stagecoach and its passengers, but they leave soon enough and she sighs with relief that she is alone again, gazing out the window, her elbows on the windowsill. What she does not realize is that there actually is someone else in the room and that he is none too happy about the situation.

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 was. 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.

Edward recognized him, though he clearly did not recognize Edward. That was hardly surprising since Edward was quite unremarkable in his own person, and his title had been lending him consequence only for the past year, since the death of his far more imposing and charismatic older brother. And the year of mourning had been spent at Wimsbury Abbey in Shropshire, where Edward had stayed to familiarize himself with his new duties and gird his loins for the inevitable removal to London this spring to take his seat in the House of Lords—and to take a bride, a step his female relatives deemed essential despite the fact that he was only twenty-four years old. Maurice and Lorraine had produced only one daughter before Maurice's demise, and the succession must be secured. Edward was the spare of his particular generation. He had two sisters but no other brothers.

The new arrival was Lord Windrow, a member of Maurice's old circle of friends and acquaintances, and as wild and rakish as the best of them. Tall and handsome, neither of which attributes Edward shared to any noticeable degree, Windrow moved with an indolent swagger and regarded the world from cynical eyes over which his eyelids habitually drooped as if he were about to nod off to sleep at any moment. He was dressed in the height of fashion.

Edward would have liked nothing better than to nod genially at the man and be on his way. But he hesitated. The pink lady was still present and was still posed as before. And if he had ogled her, what would Windrow do?

It was absolutely none of his business what Windrow might do, Edward told himself. And the pink lady was certainly none of his concern. Let her look to the consequences of her own indiscretions. Let her family look to them. Besides, this was the public taproom of a respectable inn. No real harm would come to her.

He urged himself to be on his way.

But he found himself instead resting his elbow on the counter and picking up his glass again.

Confound his misplaced sense of social responsibility. The fact that Eunice might applaud him for staying was no consolation.

The landlord appeared behind the counter and served Windrow with a tankard of ale before disappearing again.

Windrow turned to survey the room, and his eyes alit almost immediately upon the pink lady. But how could they not unless he was totally blind? He leaned back against the counter, resting his forearms back along it while clutching his tankard in one hand. His lips pursed in a silent whistle.

Edward was all the more annoyed at the blatantly sensual look on the man's face because his own must have looked very much like it just a few minutes ago.

"Sweetheart," Windrow said softly, obviously having dismissed Edward as a man of no account whatsoever—or perhaps he had not even noticed him, "may I persuade you to share my ale? Better yet, may I persuade you to share it and a meat pasty? There is only one comfortable-looking chair over by the fireplace, I see, but you may sit on my lap and share that too."

Edward frowned at him. Could he not see that the woman was a lady? The evidence was glaring enough in the fine muslin of her dress, despite the bright shade, and in the intricacy of her coiffure of dark hair. He glanced at her, expecting to see her stiffen with horror and fright. She continued to stare out the window. She either assumed that the invitation was directed at someone else, or—but was it possible?—she simply did not hear the words at all.

He should leave, Edward decided. Right now.

He spoke instead.

"I doubt you know the lady," he said. "Calling her sweetheart, then, would be inappropriately impertinent."

Maurice had often called him, affectionately enough most of the time, a staid old sobersides. Edward half expected to see dust emerge from his mouth along with the words. But they were spoken now, and he would not recall them if he could. Someone had to speak up for defenseless female innocence. If she was innocent, that was.

Windrow's head swiveled slowly, and just as slowly his lazy eyes swept Edward from head to toe. His perusal aroused no discernible alarm in him.

"You were speaking to me, fellow?" he asked.

Edward in his turn looked slowly about the room.

"I must have been," he said. "I see no one else present except the two of us and the lady, and I am not in the habit of speaking to myself."

Slight amusement showed in the other man's face.

"Lady," he said. "I take it she is not with you. She is alone, then. I wish she were a lady. It might be mildly less of a yawn to frequent London ballrooms and drawing rooms. You would be wise, fellow, to address yourself to what remains of your ale and mind your own business."

And he turned back to regard the woman's derriere again. She had changed position. Her elbows were now on the sill, and her face was cupped in her hands. The effect of the change was to thrust her bosom into more prominence in one direction and her derriere in the other.

If she could only step back and see herself from this position, Edward thought, she would run screaming from the room and never return, even with a dozen chaperons.

"Perhaps this lady would care to sit in my lap while I call to the landlord to bring her a pasty and ale so that she may share with me," Windrow said with insolent emphasis. "Would you, sweetheart?"

Edward sighed inwardly and moved one degree closer to an unwilling confrontation. It was too late to back off now.

"I really must insist," he said, "that the lady be treated with the respect that any female ought to be accorded as a matter of right by anyone claiming the name of gentleman."

He sounded pompous. Of course he sounded pompous. He always did, did he not?

Windrow's head turned, and his amusement was quite unmistakable now.

"Are you looking for a fight, fellow?" he asked.

The lady seemed finally to have realized that she was the subject of the conversation behind her. She straightened up and turned, all wide, dark eyes in a narrow, handsome face, and all tall, shapely height.

Good God, Edward thought, the rest of her person more than lived up to the promise of her derriere. She was a rare beauty. But this was no time to allow himself to be distracted. He had been asked a question.

"I have never felt any burning desire to enforce gentility or simple civility with my fists," he said, his tone mild and amiable. "It seems something of a contradiction in terms."

"I believe," Windrow said, "I have the pleasure of addressing a sniveling coward. And a stuffy windbag. All wrapped in one neat package."

Each charge, even the last, was an insult. But Edward would be damned before he would allow himself to be goaded into adopting swashbuckling tactics just to prove to someone he despised that he was a man.

"A man who defends the honor of a lady and who expects a gentleman to behave like one and confronts him when he does not is a coward, then?" he asked mildly.

The woman's eyes, he was aware, had moved from one to the other of them but were now riveted upon his face. Her hands were clasped to her bosom as though she had been struck by some tender passion. She looked remarkably unalarmed.

"I believe," Windrow said, "the suggestion has been made that I am not a gentleman. If I just had a glove about my person, I would slap it across your insolent face, fellow, and invite you to follow me out to the inn yard. But a man ought not to be allowed to get away with being a coward and a stuffy windbag, gloves or no gloves, ought he? Fellow, you are hereby challenged to fisticuffs outside." He jerked his thumb in the direction of the inn yard and smiled—very unpleasantly indeed.

Once more Edward sighed inwardly.

"And the winner proves himself a gentleman worthy of the name, does he?" he said. "Pardon me if I disagree and decline your generous offer. I will settle for an apology to the lady instead before you take yourself off."

He glanced at her again. She was still gazing fixedly at him.

He had, as he was fully aware, backed himself into a tight corner from which there was no way out that was not going to prove painful. He was going to end up having to fight Windrow and either give him a bloody nose and two black eyes to take to London with him, or suffer his opponent to dish out the like to himself. Or both.

It was all very tedious. Nothing but flash and fists. That was what being a gentleman was to many of the men who claimed the name. Maurice, unfortunately, had been one of them.

"Apologize to the lady?" Windrow laughed softly and with undisguised menace.

That was when the lady decided to enter the fray—without uttering a word.

She seemed to grow three inches. She looked suddenly regal and haughty—and she shifted her gaze to Windrow. She looked him up and down unhurriedly and appeared to find what she saw utterly contemptible.

It was a masterly performance—or perhaps a mistressly one.

Her wordless comment was not without its effect even though Windrow was half grinning at her. Perhaps it was a rueful grin?

"I misjudged you, alas, did I?" he asked her. "Because you were alone in here and leaning nonchalantly on the windowsill and dressed like a bird of paradise, I suppose. I cannot persuade you to share a pasty and a glass of ale with me? Or to sit on my lap? A pity. And it would seem I cannot persuade this sniveling coward to defend your honor or his own with his fists. What a sad day to have encountered when I had such high hopes of it when I awoke this morning. There is nothing for it, I see, but to resume my tedious journey and hope for a brighter tomorrow."

And he pushed himself away from the counter, setting down his empty tankard as he did so, and would have sauntered out of the inn without a word more or a backward glance. He found an obstacle in his path, however. Before he could reach the door, Edward was there ahead of him and standing in front of it, blocking the way.

"You have forgotten something," he said. "You owe the lady an apology."

Windrow's eyebrows rose—and amusement suffused his face again. He turned back to the room and made the lady a deep and mocking bow.

"Oh, fair one," he said, "it pains me that I may have distressed you with my admiration. Accept my humble apologies, I beg you."

She neither accepted nor rejected them. She gazed coldly at him without relaxing her regal demeanor.

Windrow winked at her.

"I shall look forward to making your official acquaintance at some future date," he said. "It is my fervent hope that that will not be far in the future."

He turned to Edward, who stood out of the way of the door.

"And likewise for you, fellow," he said. "It will be a distinct pleasure."

Edward inclined his head curtly to him, and Windrow left the inn and closed the door behind him.

That left Edward and the lady in the taproom together again. But this time she knew he was there and so the impropriety could not be ignored or even silently fumed over. He was freshly annoyed with her—and with himself for having become embroiled in such an undignified episode.

She was gazing at him, the regal demeanor vanished, her hands clasped at her bosom again.

Edward inclined his head curtly to her and made his way outside. He half expected to find Windrow lying in wait for him in the yard and was almost disappointed to see no sign of the man.

Less than five minutes later he was inside his carriage again and on his way toward London. Ten minutes after that, the carriage passed a far smarter one—of course, it would have been difficult to find one shabbier—traveling with reckless speed in the opposite direction. He caught a glimpse of the coat of arms emblazoned on the door. The Duke of Tresham's. He breathed a sigh of relief that at least he had been spared having to encounter that particular gentleman at the Rose and Crown in addition to Windrow. It would have been the final straw.

Tresham was not his favorite person in the world. And, to be fair, he did not doubt that he was not Tresham's either. The duke had been another of Maurice's friends. It was in a curricle race against him that Maurice had overturned his own and killed himself. And then Tresham had had the effrontery to turn up at Maurice's funeral. Edward had made his opinion known to him there.

He wished anew that he could have stayed at Wimsbury Abbey. But duty called in London. And there was consolation, for Eunice was there too. She was staying with Lady Sanford, her aunt, and he would see her again.

It struck him suddenly that Tresham was driving in the opposite direction from London. Perhaps he was on his way to Acton Park. Perhaps he was going to remain there throughout the spring. It was something to be hoped for.

Who the devil was that lady back at the inn? Someone needed to take her in hand and teach her a thing or two about what was what.

But devil take it, she was a rare beauty.

He frowned as he shifted position in a vain attempt to get comfortable.

Beauty was no excuse for impropriety. Indeed, beauty called for more than usual discretion.

He still felt entirely out of charity with her, whoever she was. Unlike Windrow, he did not look forward to making her official acquaintance. He hoped rather that he would never see her again. He hoped she was traveling away from London rather than toward it.

Preferably to the highlands of Scotland.

© Mary Balogh