By the time they stopped for the night at the Lamb and Flag Inn in Marlborough, where she had reserved two adjoining rooms, one for herself and one to be shared by Edna and Flora, Claudia was wondering if she could possibly have felt stiffer in the joints or more numb in certain nether parts of her anatomy if they had come by hired coach, as originally planned. But she knew from past experience that she could indeed. The Marquess of Attingsborough’s carriage was clean and well sprung and had luxuriously padded upholstery. It was the sad condition of the road and the long hours of almost incessant travel that were responsible for her physical condition. One blessing at least was that they had had the carriage to themselves all day, she and her two charges. The marquess had ridden the whole way, changing mounts when the carriage horses had been changed. Claudia had seen him only in fleeting glimpses through the window and at the various posting inns where they had made brief stops. He cut a remarkably fine figure on horseback, of course, she had noticed with annoyance each time it had happened. He was impeccably dressed for riding and looked perfectly at ease in the saddle—even after he had been riding for hours. Doubtless he considered himself God’s gift to the human race, particularly the female half—which was a totally unfair judgment, she conceded in the privacy of her own thoughts, though she made no great effort to amend her opinion of him. Of course it had been kind of him to offer his carriage for her convenience, but by his own admission he had done so in order to impress his family and friends. She was half relieved, half indignant at the prompt, meticulous service they had received everywhere they stopped. She knew it would have been far otherwise had she come in the hired coach. She and the girls were even served refreshments in the carriage instead of having to step inside the various bustling inns to be jostled by other travelers and to wait in line for their purchases. It had been a long and tedious day nonetheless, and there had been little conversation inside the carriage. The girls had been visibly depressed for the first hour or so and not at all inclined to talk or even look appreciatively at the passing scenery. And even when they had brightened after the first stop and the first round of refreshments, they had both been on their very best behavior in the company of their headmistress with the result that they scarcely spoke at all unless she directed specific questions at them. Flora had been at the school for almost five years. She had spent all of her childhood at an orphanage in London but had been turned out to fend for herself at the age of thirteen. Edna had been orphaned at the age of eleven, when her parents had been murdered while defending their humble shop from thieves, though as it had turned out there had been precious little to defend. There had been nothing with which to provide for their only daughter. Fortunately, Mr. Hatchard had found her, as he had Flora, and sent her to Bath. When Claudia stepped inside the Lamb and Flag, she was forced to wait while the landlord finished conducting a leisurely chat with another customer on the fascinating topic of fishing and two other men—not to be dignified by the term gentlemen—ogled Flora and Edna and desisted with insolent smirks only when Claudia glared at them. She then looked pointedly at the landlord, who was pretending not to notice her. If another minute passed, she decided, she would certainly speak up. And then the door from the stable yard opened and closed and everything changed just as if someone had waved a magic wand. The fish conversation ended as if it were of no significance whatsoever and the customer faded away into oblivion. The landlord preened himself with obsequious hand-rubbing and jovial smiles. It was the Marquess of Attingsborough who had come through the door, Claudia saw when she turned her head to look. And even if the landlord had not yet been informed that he was here—which he no doubt had been—there was something written all over the man that proclaimed him an aristocrat, a certain self-confident arrogance that immediately irritated Claudia. “Welcome to the Lamb and Flag, my lord,” the landlord said, “the most hospitable inn in Marlborough. How may I serve you?” Hospitable indeed! Claudia looked pointedly back at the landlord and opened her mouth to speak. “I believe,” the marquess said, “Miss Martin and her charges came inside before I did.” The landlord did an admirable job of starting with amazement as if the three of them had just materialized out of invisibility. Claudia fairly quivered with indignation—most of it, quite unfairly perhaps, directed at the Marquess of Attingsborough, who was not at all to blame for the fact that she had been considered a mere nobody until it became clear that a real live marquess knew her name. But she certainly had not needed anyone to speak up for her. “Miss Martin?” the landlord said, smiling jovially at her. She did not smile back. “I have your rooms ready for you, ma’am. You may go up immediately.” “Thank—” Claudia got no further. “I trust,” the marquess said, “they are the best rooms in the house?” “All our rooms are superior, my lord,” the landlord assured him. “But the front rooms have been reserved by Mr. Cosman and his cousin.” The marquess had come to stand just behind Claudia’s shoulder. She could not see his face, but she could see the landlord’s. The marquess did not say another word, but after a moment the landlord cleared his throat. “But I am quite certain,” he said, “the two gentlemen will be only too happy to give up their rooms for the use of such charming ladies and take the two overlooking the stable yard instead.” Where Claudia had stayed each time she had put up at this inn before. She remembered a great deal of noise and light in those small rooms all night long, robbing her of sleep. “The ladies must certainly have the front rooms,” the landlord said, smiling once more at Claudia. “I must insist upon it.” As if she had argued against it. And yet perversely she wanted to argue and she wanted those inferior rooms. She would not be beholden to the Marquess of Attingsborough for more comfortable rooms. Good heavens, she was an independent woman. She di d not need any man to fight her battles. “And you have a private dining room?” he asked before she could say a word. Claudia’s nostrils flared. Was she to be humiliated even further? “Mr. Cosman…” the landlord began. But yet again he paused as he looked at the marquess. “It will be set aside for the ladies as is only right, my lord, the rest of my clients tonight being all gentlemen.” Claudia knew just exactly what had happened. The Marquess of Attingsborough must have raised an aristocratic eyebrow a couple of times. And the landlord had almost fallen all over himself to show how obsequious he could be. It was despicable, to say the least. All because of who the marquess was, or, rather, because of the color of his blood. He was probably nothing more than an idle…rake, and yet all the world would bow and scrape to him because he had a title and doubtless pots of money to go with it. Well, she would not bow or scrape. She turned to face him. He was smiling that easy, charming smile—and then he winked at her. He actually winked! And of course he was still looking gorgeous even after a day spent in the saddle. He was tapping his riding whip against the outside of his leather boot. He looked long-limbed and virile and…Well, that was quite enough. He even smelled good—of horse and some cologne mingled together into a peculiarly enticing masculine scent. Claudia looked at him steadily, her lips pressed together in a thin line. But the wink had thrown her off stride for a moment, and then it seemed too late and too petty to declare that she would be quite happy with the small rooms and the public dining room. Edna and Flora were looking at him too—gazing worshipfully, in fact. As if that were any surprise. “Come along, girls,” Claudia said briskly. “We will retire to our rooms if the landlord will give us directions.” She strode toward their bags. “You will have the ladies’ baggage taken up immediately?” the marquess said. Clearly he was addressing the landlord. “Of course, my lord,” the landlord said, clicking his fingers as Claudia’s nostrils flared. “I was about to give the order.” Two—not one but two—menservants came running as if from nowhere, scooped up the bags, and headed in the direction of the staircase with them. Claudia strode after them and the girls came after her. The rooms, of course, were sizable and comfortable chambers, which overlooked the edge of town and the quiet fields beyond. They were clean and filled with light and were altogether above reproach. The girls squealed with delight and hurried to the window of their room to lean on the windowsill and gaze out at the scenery. Claudia withdrew to her own room and sighed with self-reproach as she admitted to herself that it really was vastly superior to the usual one. She stretched out on the bed to relax for a few minutes. He had actually winked at her. She could not remember the last time any man had done that. Goodness, it probably had not happened since she was a girl. How dare he! But oh, the room was quiet and the bed was comfortable and the air coming through the open window was fresh. There was a single bird trilling its heart out. She actually dozed off for a while. And then she dined with the girls in the comfort and relative quiet of the private dining room on roast beef and potatoes and boiled cabbage followed by suet pudding and custard and tea. She was forced to admit afterward that she felt restored and very relieved that they had not been expected to share the room with the Marquess of Attingsborough. Both girls looked slightly sleepy. She was about to suggest that they all retire for the night even though it was still light outside and really quite early when there was a tap on the door and it opened to reveal the marquess himself. “Ah,” he said, smiling and inclining his head. “Miss Martin? Young ladies? I am delighted that this inn boasts at least one private parlor. I have been regaled throughout dinner with conversation on crops and hunting and boxing mills.” Claudia suspected that he would not even be staying here if he had not committed himself to escorting her. He would probably be putting up at the George and Pelican or the Castle, which were both beyond her means. She hoped he was not expecting to be thanked for the privilege of both this room and their bedchambers. She still bristled at the memory of how he had wielded power even without the medium of words while she had felt like a helpless, inept woman. The girls had both scrambled to their feet and were curtsying to him. Claudia too stood but she merely nodded civilly. “I trust,” he said, stepping into the room, “you have passed a reasonably comfortable day. I hope you have not had every bone in your bodies jounced about into a new position.” “Oh, no, my lord,” Flora assured him. “I never even dreamed a carriage could be so comfortable. I wish the journey could last a week. Or two.” He chuckled, and Edna, looking rather like a frightened rabbit, giggled. “I suppose,” he said, “you are both desperately unhappy at having to leave your school and your friends behind and impossibly excited at the prospect of beginning new lives as adults.” Edna bobbed a curtsy again. “Some of those girls are like sisters, though,” Flora told him. “And it hurts here to know we may never see them again.” She smote her fist against her bosom. “But I am ready to work for my living, my lord. We cannot stay at school forever, can we?” Claudia looked steadily at the marquess, expecting to see him astonished that either girl would have the effrontery to answer him in more than a monosyllable. Instead, he continued to smile. “And to what employment do you go, Miss…?” “Bains, my lord,” she told him. “Miss Bains,” he said. “I am going to be a governess,” she said. “I have always wanted to be one ever since I learned to read and write when I was thirteen. I think being able to teach those things to other people is the most wonderful thing anyone could possibly do in life. Would you not agree, my lord?” Claudia was very afraid that Flora might talk too much. However, she was pleased to hear that even in the excitement of the moment the girl spoke with a decent accent and correct grammar—far differently from the way she had spoken when she arrived at the school five years earlier. “I do indeed,” he said, “though I cannot say that I regarded my first tutor as a saint when he taught me to read. He used the rod far too often for my liking!” Edna giggled. “Well, that was silly,” Flora said. “How could you learn properly when you were being beaten? And even worse, how could you enjoy learning? It reminds me of the orphanage when we were taught to sew. I never did learn properly, and I still hate sewing. We never ever got beaten at school, and I will never ever beat my pupils no matter how badly behaved they are or slow to learn. Or my children—if I ever have any.” Claudia pursed her lips. Flora was running on rather. However, her passion was to be commended. “I can see,” the marquess said, “that you will be a superior governess, Miss Bains. Your pupils will be fortunate children. And you, Miss…? He looked with raised eyebrows at Edna, who blushed and giggled and looked as if she wanted nothing more than for a black hole to appear at her feet to swallow her up. “Wood, your grace,” she said. “I mean, my lord.” “Miss Wood,” he said. “Are you to be a governess too?” “Yes, my lord,” she said. “I-I mean your grace.” “I believe,” he said, “that titles must have been invented to confuse us all horribly. As if the fact that most of us are blessed with at least two names is not challenge enough for those who meet us in the course of our lives! And so you are to be a governess, Miss Wood. And doubtless a superior one too, well educated and well trained at Miss Martin’s School.” He looked immediately at Claudia in such a way as to signal to Edna that she need not feel the necessity of composing a reply to his observation. It was, Claudia admitted grudgingly, thoughtful of him. “Miss Martin,” he said, “I came to see if the three of you are ready to retire for the night. If you are, I shall escort you through the crowded dining room and up to your rooms and see that no one accosts you on the way.” “Thank you,” Claudia said. “Yes, it has been a long day, and there is another facing us tomorrow.” And yet after escorting them upstairs past several groups of loudly talking men and seeing Flora and Edna safely inside their room with the door shut, he did not immediately hurry off back downstairs. “Of course,” he said, “it is still rather early, Miss Martin. And weary as I am after such a long ride, I feel the need to stretch my legs before I lie down. You may feel a similar need and an additional one to draw fresh air into your lungs. Would you care to accompany me on a short walk?” She would like no such thing. But her dinner was still sitting heavy in her stomach even though she had not taken large helpings of anything. And she was still feeling cramped from the journey with as much distance again to travel tomorrow. She craved fresh air and exercise. She could not go walking alone in a strange town when it was already dusk. The Marquess of Attingsborough was Susanna’s friend, she reminded herself. Susanna had spoken highly of him. The only reason she could possibly have for not going with him was that she did not like him, though really she did not know him, did she? And that he was a man—but that was patently ridiculous. She might be an aging spinster, but she was not going to dwindle into the type of old maid who simpered and blushed and generally went all to pieces as soon as a male hove into sight. “Thank you,” she said. “I will fetch my cloak and bonnet.” “Good,” he said, “I will wait for you at the head of the stairs.”