The Dashing Miss Langley - extract

It was a perfect summer morning in 1819 when Miss Annabelle Langley drove her curricle through the streets of London, weaving in and out of the brewers' carts and carriages with consummate skill.

She was a striking sight, her Amazonian figure clad in a sky blue pelisse and her fair hair topped with a high-crowned bonnet. She had no chaperone except for a tiger perched behind her. He was a splendidly clad urchin and he grinned impudently at the crusty old dowagers who looked on with a frown as the curricle whirled by.

In anyone else such behaviour would have been considered fast, but as Annabelle was twenty-seven years of age and possessed of a large fortune, she was grudgingly allowed to be eccentric.

She brought her equipage to a halt outside a house in Grosvenor Square and, handing the reins to her tiger, she approached the porticoed entrance. She lifted the knocker, but before she could let it drop, her sister-in-law opened the door.

'My dear Annabelle, I am so glad you are here,' said Hetty with a look of relief.

'But you knew I was coming. Why the heartfelt welcome?' asked Annabelle in surprise.

Hetty linked arms and drew her inside, much to the disapproval of the butler, whose expression seemed to say, Ladies opening the door for themselves? Whatever next?

'It is Caroline,' said Hetty, her silk skirts rustling as the two ladies crossed the spacious hall.

'What, do not tell me that she is not ready?' said Annabelle. 'I suppose she has overslept and she is still drinking her chocolate? Or is it more serious? Is she standing in front of the mirror wondering which of Madame Renault's delightful creations she should wear?'

'It is worse than that,' said Hetty with a heavy sigh as she guided Annabelle into the drawing-room.It was an elegant apartment with high ceilings and tall windows, and it was sumptuously furnished. Marble-topped console tables were set beneath gleaming mirrors, and damasked sofas were positioned between silk-upholstered chairs.

'Worse?' asked Annabelle.

'Much worse,' said Hetty emphatically. 'It is A Man.'

She gave the words capital letters.

Annabelle stopped in the middle of stripping off her gloves and said, 'I see. And who is this man?'

Hetty looked at her helplessly and groaned.

'You will never believe it. If I did not know it to be true then I would not believe it myself. It is the Braithwaites' gardener!' she said.

Annabelle raised her eyebrows in surprise.

'Unless I am very much mistaken, the Braithwaites' gardener is seventy years old!' she said.

'Oh no, it is not Old Ned. He has retired. It is his grandson who is the cause of all the trouble. Able. And a very handsome young man, it has to be said. But quite unsuitable. And, even worse, he is engaged.'

'Do you not mean, even better, he is engaged?' enquired Annabelle, removing her pelisse and bonnet.

'I only wish I did. If Caroline would accept that he was spoken for then all would be well. But you know how headstrong she is. She is convinced that he does not love his fiancée and that he is only marrying the girl to please his grandfather, who happens to be friends with her grandfather. The two men have had a very enjoyable rivalry over the last fifty years, concerning who can grow the best roses.'

'And what does Able say about it all?'

'Nothing. He shifts his weight from one foot to the other when she challenges him, and goes bright red, then pulls his ear, and says, "I don't rightly know, Miss Caroline, I reckon I love 'er."'

'Oh dear! But surely this must deter Caroline?' said Annabelle, bubbling with laughter.

'Not a bit of it. She simply says that he does not know his own mind, and that he needs a good woman to know it for him!'

'And the good woman in question, I suppose, is Caroline?'

'Of course,' said Hetty, sinking into a chair.

Annabelle looked at Hetty's woebegone face and tried to pull a sympathetic expression but she could not help herself. It was too ridiculous! She burst into outright laughter.

'Really, Belle, it is no laughing matter,' said Hetty crossly.

'Oh, Hetty, I'm sorry, but of course it is! Caroline is a minx, but in six weeks time she will have forgotten all about Able, and she will be content for him to marry his sweetheart and grow roses for the rest of his days.'

'I only hope it may be so, but what am I to do with her in the meantime? She declares she won't go to Whitegates Manor with you, and if she stays here, she will make everyone uncomfortable. The Braithwaites have already asked me not to bring her with me the next time I call. She distracts Able from his work. The last time we called he sent a cabbage indoors for the flower arrangements, and then enraged the cook by sending a basket of hollyhocks into the kitchen for dinner.'

'Never fear,' said Annabelle soothingly, putting her hand reassuringly on Hetty's. 'I will take Caroline to Whitegates with me, I promise you, and you can have some respite.'