Lady Evangeline Radcliffe was not in the mood to brook argument. Oh, indeed not. The trials of being a certain age were irksome enough already without having an insolent lodging keeper to deal with as well. She had just journeyed twenty uncomfortable miles from Bath, enduring flushes that required an open carriage window regardless of the freezing December temperature, and she had no intention of being fobbed off by Mr. Tully Ramsbotham, a pompous carrot-topped fellow who was built like an outhouse and had the manners to match!
The plumes on her fashionable brown velvet hat trembled as she confronted him in the chilly hallway of his three-story kingdom in the market square of Wells. His stubborn effrontery was the only obstacle between her and the young woman she had been secretly seeking for eight years, so she glared up at him from her diminutive five feet one inch.
"Don't make the mistake of trifling with me, Mr. Ramsbotham, for I am not one of your unfortunate servants. Besides, this is supposed to be the season of goodwill, or had that escaped your attention? Now, then, I have been given to understand that a Miss Mortimer is newly staying here, and I wish to see her immediately." With a peremptory flick of her fur-lined traveling cloak, she marched into his cozy low-beamed parlor, where a maid was attaching a garland of Christmas greenery to the mantelshelf.
It was the sixteenth of December, a Tuesday, and pale afternoon sunlight shone coldly through the small uneven panes of the bow window. It was a far cry from the previous day, when a terrible storm had lashed the land. Now it was calm and peaceful again, and outside, the crowded square of the little cathedral city in Somerset was cluttered with stalls as seasonal preparations got under way. The magnificent towers of the nearby cathedral soared above the rooftops, and the air was so still that smoke rose vertically from chimneys. Icicles hung from eaves, everyone's breath stood out in clouds, and roast chestnuts were much in demand. The sound of street calls and fiddle music drifted into the room, and a dog set up a clamor as a stagecoach departed from the town's principal inn, where only moments before Evangeline had secured the only tolerable rooms, and where her elderly French maid, Annie, was at that moment making everything as comfortable as she could.
Mr. Ramsbotham, a former blacksmith who could easily have picked Evangeline up in one fist, was momentarily too startled to do anything, but then he saw red. Fists clenched, he pursued his unwelcome caller into the parlor. "You can't come in here as if you own the place, my lady! This is my property!"
"I am aware of whose property it is, sirrah."
"So grand lady or not, you're trespassing, and I want you out of here right now!" he shouted. The maid's eyes widened and she abandoned her holly, ivy, and mistletoe to hurry out.
Evangeline wasn't intimidated. "Oh, stuff and nonsense, Mr. Ramsbotham," she declared. "Such a fuss about so little! Just bring Miss Mortimer, and all will be swiftly accomplished. Well, don't just stand there, man, go to it!" She waved him away as if he were an irritating fly.
He was sorely tempted to bundle her off the premises, fancy plumes and all, but then discretion belatedly achieved victory over valor; after all, she was titled, and heaven alone knew what hornets' nest she could stir up for him if the mood took her. A nerve twitched at his temple as he bit back his anger. "Very well, my lady. I will see that Miss Mortimer is informed of your presence."
She gave him an infuriatingly gracious nod. "That was all you needed to say in the first place."
He scowled and went out, but the moment the door closed behind him, Evangeline's hazel eyes became less certain. Was she making a monumental error of judgment by coming here? With a sigh she placed her reticule and sable muff on a table. Beneath her cloak she wore a fawn merino pelisse and matching gown, and on her feet there were neat brown ankle boots that laced at the back. Everything about her was a la mode, as might be expected from someone who resided in the most prestigious area of Brighton, and whose forays to London were for the sole purpose of visiting a preeminent dressmaker.
Removing her gloves, she went to hold her cold hands out to the welcome warmth of the fire. Then she glanced critically at her reflection in the faded mirror on the chimney breast. Maybe she was a little embonpoint now, which was to be expected in her fifty-first year, but thankfully she still retained some of the looks that had once made her the toast of the capital. Her hair was now liberally sprinkled with gray, and these days she was obliged to employ Chinese cosmetic papers on her cheeks to lessen the too healthy bloom resulting from years of Brighton's incomparable sea air. But the paper, powder, or cream had not yet been invented that could conceal the mortifying flushes by which she had been beset for the past six months or so. Her mother used to say that such things were a sign of being 'past it', but Evangeline didn't feel past anything, in fact, having never married, she didn't feel she had even reached it yet!
However, this December of 1806 her life had certainly reached a turning point, for not only had she finally bowed to royal pressure and agreed to sell her beloved home in Brighton to the Prince of Wales--a fact she had yet to impart to her relatives--but she could no longer stand by and allow those same relatives to fritter away their chances of happiness. The time had come to act, but she would have to wait until New Year's Eve before she could really start.
The forthcoming sale of Radcliffe House was almost the least of her problems, and had only come about because Prinny was determined to further enlarge his precious Marine Pavilion. Both properties stood side by side overlooking Brighton's famous Steine, and in recent years the Pavilion had been extended so much that it was practically cheek by jowl with Radcliffe House. This had created a rather jarring effect because Radcliffe House was a square four stories built of redbrick, whereas the Pavilion was a long, low two stories covered with cream tiles. From the moment Prinny got it into his head to raze both Radcliffe House and the upper portion of Great East Street to the ground in order to improve his own property, she had known no peace. Not that the matter was anything other than amicable, for she and the prince were good friends and he was paying far more than her property was worth; but right now it was just another irritation.
Far more imminent and problematical was the matter of sorting out people's private lives. She had silly heads to knock together, desired matches to bring about, scoundrels to see off, and orphans to rescue. And that was without the added vexation of the Tully Ramsbothams of this world, and the Rollo Witherspoons of the next! She knew Rollo was somewhere in the room with her now, because she had not only heard his footsteps accompanying her, but also his ghostly 'tut' at the lodging keeper's insolence. Mr. Ramsbotham and the maid heard nothing of course; but then they wouldn't. Nobody else did. It was most frustrating, but she could hardly admit to the world that she went everywhere with the persistent spirit of a Restoration actor at her heels! She knew those around her feared she was slightly mad, but it couldn't be helped, for when one was being haunted, there was very little one could do about it. Besides, Rollo could be quite agreeable company when he chose.
As if he knew her thoughts, Rollo began to address her from somewhere over her left shoulder. "Mistress, I think--"
"Not now, if you please, Master Witherspoon, for I have things of my own to think about."
"As thou wishest, mistress."
Evangeline gazed into the mirror, and her twenty-six-year-old favorite nephew and chosen heir, Lord Rupert Radcliffe, was uppermost in her mind. He had dismayed everyone when he foolishly spurned Chloe, the daughter of Evangeline's oldest and dearest friend in Brighton, Admiral Sir Jocelyn Holcroft. Chloe was adorable, with short golden hair, big blue eyes, and a dainty figure. Enchantingly scatterbrained, impulsive, and kindhearted, Chloe was the perfect bride for Rupert, who was the youngest son of Evangeline's brother, the Duke of Dencaster. But he had bungled his opportunity, and now a certain Oliver March was slyly insinuating himself into her affections. The latest whisper suggested an announcement on St. Valentine's Day, which wouldn't do at all! Mr. March should be given his conge, and Rupert's ears should be soundly boxed.
Evangeline gave her reflection a long-suffering look, for her other nephew, Sir Greville Seton, presented as great a problem. Greville wasn't strictly her nephew, more a third or fourth cousin once removed, or some such convoluted thing, but whatever the connection, she called him nephew. He was handsome, dashing, charming, wealthy, and sought after; but he was also complex and-- occasionally--downright difficult. At thirty-four he should have been married long since, but there was no sign of a bride. That had to be rectified, for if ever a man was in need of a wife, it was Greville.
Finally, in Miss Megan Mortimer, Evangeline had the orphan in need of rescue; provided she was the right Megan Mortimer, of course. Oh, surely there could not be another who apparently fitted the bill so completely? This Megan's age and background was right, so she must be the right one. It was a great pity that she was a companion, because Greville disliked companions on principle, but it couldn't be helped. Whatever his opinion on the matter, his aunt was determined to gather the young lady safely into her protection. And to think that if the customary Christmas arrangements had not gone wrong this year, Megan might never have been discovered at all.
It had started several weeks ago, when she realized that her usual yuletide guests could not come until New Year's Eve because of prior commitments of one sort or another. Then had arrived an invitation to stay in Bath with her old friend Lady Jane Strickland, with whom she had almost lost all contact. Yesterday she had arrived in Bath to find Jane's loathsome son and daughter-in-law, Ralph and Sophia, on the point of leaving for London, having cut short the first visit they had made to Bath after a long family rift. The rift was apparently in danger of resumption because Sophia, elder daughter of Lord and Lady Garsington of Brighton and every hit as objectionable as her parents, had discovered Ralph in shocking circumstances with the young woman employed as his mother's companion. Ralph claimed to have been the innocent victim of shameless advances, and Sophia had demanded the companion's immediate dismissal without a reference.
Jane had--rather reprehensibly--complied, for it was apparent to everyone that if any shameless advances had taken place, they had been of Ralph's lecherous doing. But Jane's compliance had not been swift enough for Sophia, who had never wished to mend the rift in the first place; hence the precipitate departure for the capital.
The ill-used companion, Miss Megan Mortimer, had already packed and departed when Evangeline arrived at the Strickland residence. Megan had come here to Wells because a post was advertised by the bishop's wife, although without a reference her chances of success were minimal.
The moment Evangeline heard the companion's name, she had abandoned all thought of Christmas with Jane in order to give pursuit. In a few moments now she hoped to come face-to-face with the young woman who had no connection with her whatsoever, but whose welfare was vital to her peace of mind. She reached inside her cloak to finger the beautiful gold locket at her throat.
Maybe it was all going to be in vain, but whatever the outcome, she would have tried her best.
Rollo broke into her thoughts by suddenly clearing his throat. "Wilt thou hear my soliloquy now, mistress?" he asked hopefully.
"Master Witherspoon, your wretched soliloquy will have to wait until we are home in Brighton, for this is neither the appropriate time nor place for Hamlet," Evangeline replied tartly.
His footsteps crossed to the abandoned greenery, which he kicked pettishly. "Yon surly Ramsbotham taketh a plaguey long time," he grumbled.
"I dare say he is being deliberately slow to spite me," she replied.
"A knave, if ever I perceived one." The ghost sighed. "Mistress, art thou quite sure of all this? Might it not be that Master Ralph spoke truthfully? What if Mistress Mortimer is a trollop after all?"
"I've already told you, I'm not sure of anything," she replied a little impatiently, for they had argued about this all the way from Bath. Of course there was a chance that Ralph had been honest for once, but she rather thought pigs would sew fishing nets on the Steine first!
At that moment there came a timid knock at the door. Evangeline braced herself for her first glimpse of Miss Megan Mortimer. First impressions were so very important... "Enter," she said.