Ellie's ears pricked the moment she heard Jack's name. It seemed that she wasn't the only female whose ears pricked. Ambitious mamas with young daughters to marry off broke off their conversations and scanned the crush of elegant guests in the embassy's grand salon. This was Paris, six months after Waterloo, and the ambassador was hosting the first ball of the new year.
And, thought Ellie, a glittering affair it was, too. Handsome soldiers in their dress regimentals, gentlemen of fashion, and ladies in their high-waisted, diaphanous ball gowns ringed the dance floor as they watched couples form sets for the next dance.
She wasn't really a part of this glittering crowd. As a paid companion-cum-chaperon, she had to dress modestly and try to look invisible. That wasn't difficult. She was no beauty and was past the age of attracting masculine attention, assets that she took pains to cultivate. Beautiful young women rarely found employment as governesses or companions.
Her gaze came to rest on two gentlemen who had just entered the salon. They were both tall and dark-haired, both very elegant in their English tailoring and satin breeches. But only one of those gentlemen was known to her--Jack Rigg.
She was probably prejudiced, but she could not help thinking that, even in that glittering crush, he was a formidable presence. Part of his appeal was that he was quite unconscious of the impression he made, either that or he did not care. He was darkly handsome, with beautiful, lustrous eyes the color of the luxurious French chocolate she sipped every morning to slowly bring herself awake. A look from Jack's eyes had the same effect.
She smiled at her fanciful turn of mind.
Though she remembered him very well, he wouldn't remember her. As a young man, no more than a boy, really, he'd been rusticated from Oxford for wildness and truancy and his irate father had sent him to the local vicar for tutoring. Her father just happened to be the local vicar.
She could still see traces of that reckless boy in the grown man, but tempered now by a soldier's discipline. Not that Jack was still a soldier. She'd heard that he'd resigned his commission when he'd come into the title. She supposed she should think of him as Lord Raleigh now and not as plain Jack Rigg.
When he brushed back a lock of dark hair, a fleeting smile softened her expression. She recognized the gesture, as well as the glint in his dark eyes and the slant of that sculpted mouth in his tanned face. He'd had the same expression as a boy when he couldn't get his mind around Greek grammar, and was impatient to get out of the schoolroom and go riding on the downs or flirt with the local girls.
No one denied that Jack had a way with women.
Her father never claimed that he had turned Jack into a scholar, but he'd imparted the rudiments of Latin and Greek, enough to gain the boy re-admittance to Oxford's hallowed halls. Papa had always maintained that though Jack was a little wild, he was sound in the things that mattered, and he expected him to turn out well.
She wondered, if her father were alive, what he would think of Jack now.
Her thoughts scattered when she heard her employer's voice, thin and nasal, pitched above the noise as she addressed her daughter. "Look, Harriet," exclaimed Lady Sedgewick, "there's Lord Raleigh with his friend. Now there's a gentleman I hope your papa will cultivate. Next to Devonshire, he is the most eligible bachelor in Paris."
She fanned her hot cheeks as she gazed avidly at the gentleman in question. Lady Harriet, a tall, willowy girl with blonde curls and a pleasant rather than a pretty face, followed the direction of her mother's gaze. "There are two gentlemen there, Mama. Which of them is Lord Raleigh?"
Her mother frowned. "Not the dandy with the quizzing glass! That is Lord Denison, and everyone knows he has to marry money." Her ladyship flicked a glance at Ellie. "I expect you, Miss Hill, to keep a sharp lookout for fortune hunters and keep them away from Harriet."
"Naturally," replied Ellie meekly.
Lady Sedgewick need not have worried about fortune hunters. Harriet was in love with a young soldier who had been posted to Canada, so she was safe from everyone, even from her mother's stratagems to marry her off.
"Mama!" Harriet protested. "He's too old for me. He must be thirty if he's a day."
Thirty-two, to be exact, but Ellie kept that piece of information to herself. She knew her place.
Her ladyship made a clucking sound. "Stuff and nonsense! And what has that to do with anything? He must be worth at least thirty thousand pounds a year."
One could never, thought Ellie, accuse the upper classes of delicacy when it came to discussing money and marriage. It was a different story when it came to discussing servants' wages. In her own case, her wages were two months in arrears, but it would never occur to Lady Sedgewick that her daughter's chaperon would need money when her employer paid all her expenses. As her ladyship had pointed out when she'd offered Ellie the position, though the wages were small, it was the chance of a lifetime for a young woman with no money and few connections to see a little of the world.
And so it had proved. Paris was supposed to be their first stop, but they'd been here for a month, and no one was in a hurry to leave, least of all Ellie. Lady Harriet was a good-natured girl and her attachment to the young soldier who had been posted to Canada made her easy to chaperon. Ellie didn't have to discourage suitors. Harriet did that quite well on her own. And Paris was an exciting city. It seemed that half of England's aristocracy had come for an extended visit now that the war with France was over. Every night there were parties, balls and receptions, or visits to the theater and opera.
All the same, she still felt like an outsider looking in on the world. Her place wasn't to offer opinions or share what she was feeling. She was there to listen, to fetch and carry, and smile through it all. She wasn't unique. All young women who served as chaperons or companions led solitary lives.
There was something else that troubled her. She needed money badly, and two months' wages wasn't nearly enough to cover her expenses, even if her ladyship could be hinted into opening her purse.
She sucked in a breath when Jack's gaze passed over her, then let it out slowly when he gave no sign of recognizing her. What did you expect? she chided herself. Jack had been her father's pupil for a mere six months. After that, he'd returned to Oxford, and by the time he came home for the holidays, her father had become the vicar of St. Bede's, a good ten miles from the Raleigh estate.
Fifteen years had passed since she'd last seen Jack. Naturally she remembered him. He'd been seventeen and full of himself. She'd been a tiresome adolescent who had hoped to impress him with her extensive book learning. After all, that's what impressed Papa. Someone should have told her that the way to a man's heart was not through book learning.
Lord Sedgewick joined them at that moment. "Arthur," said his wife, "don't waste a moment or Lady Oxford will steal him from under our noses for one of her girls."
"Eh?" said his lordship, mystified.
"Lord Raleigh!" She used her fan as a pointer. "Invite him over to meet Harriet. How will she ever meet eligible gentlemen if she's not introduced to them?"
Lord Sedgewick, tall and lean, with a perpetual bloodhound expression, studied the crush that was beginning to form around Lords Raleigh and Denison. He shook his head. "It's like a veritable fox hunt. Give the fox a sporting chance is what I say."
And to all his wife's commands and pleas, he turned a deaf ear.
* * *
When the orchestra struck up for a waltz, Jack deftly detached himself and his friend from the group that hemmed them in and made for the cardroom. Lord Denison, "Ash" to his friends, and a former comrade in arms, was the gentleman whom Lady Sedgewick referred to as a "dandy," largely because a quizzing glass hung from a black ribbon around his neck, and his neckcloth was done in a series of intricate folds and bows.
Just as they reached the cardroom, their hostess, Lady Elizabeth, exited it with two young hussars in tow. "Come along, Edward, Harry." Her voice was friendly but firm. "This is a ball, remember? I expect you to do your duty. There will be no wallflowers at my ball. If you won't choose a partner, I'll choose one for you."
Before Lady Elizabeth could catch his eye, Jack turned aside and steered Ash toward a stand of potted palms beside a Grecian pillar. From this vantage point they had a good view of the dance floor, and the fronds of the palms gave them some privacy. There wasn't much to see. Only a few couples were dancing, but Lady Elizabeth obviously wasn't going to tolerate that state of affairs. Gradually, more couples joined them.
"I don't suppose," said Jack, "we can slip away unseen?"
Ash looked at his friend with a mixture of amusement and curiosity. "I know you don't mean that because I know you wouldn't dream of offending Sir Charles and Lady Elizabeth. Besides, you're not usually a boor, so what's the problem?"
Jack opened his mouth to defend himself, then thought better of it. Ash was right. He was behaving like a sulky schoolboy. He was irritated because he didn't want to be here, but one did not decline the personal invitation of the British ambassador without serious consequences. He wasn't thinking only of the prime minister, but also thinking of his grandmother, whose friend happened to be the ambassador's aunt. Grandmamma would blister his ears if he slighted her friend's favorite nephew.
He gestured to the dancers on the floor. "It's this cursed ritual. This isn't a ball, it's a hunt, and all those steely-eyed matrons are really a pack of bloodhounds in full cry. And guess who their quarry is?"
"You?" asked Ash, his lips twitching.
"Oh, I don't flatter myself that it's me they want. It's my fortune. That's what is so offensive." He felt in his pocket for his snuffbox, offered it to Ash, then took a small pinch and inhaled. After savoring the aroma, he went on. "Nobody spared me a second glance until I came into the title."
He fell silent as he remembered the drastic change in his circumstances when his brother, the earl, suddenly died, leaving a widow but no male issue to inherit. As his grandmother never stopped pointing out, it was his duty to marry and, in short order, produce the next crop of Riggs to carry on the family name.
He had become resigned to his fate, more or less, until he'd found himself besieged by a horde of ambitious matrons and their equally ambitious daughters. He'd come to Paris for a respite from the hunt, only to meet the same fate here. Ash, whom he'd known since they were at school together, had offered to come with him. It had seemed like a grand idea at the time. Paris represented gaming, drinking, wenching, and dueling. That was the real draw--the dueling. In England, men still called each other out for some slight, imagined or otherwise, but it had become a ritual with no passion behind it. Pistols had replaced swords and no one ever got hurt. It was different in Paris. Frenchmen knew how to wield their small swords to devastating effect. It was an honor and an education to cross swords with them, not to mention a risky business. Not everyone put up his sword when the first blood was drawn.
Ash said, "Cheer up, Jack. Just think--once you've shackled yourself to some eligible girl, you'll be out of the race and the pack will turn on fresh prey."
Jack turned his head slowly and stared at his friend. "I don't know why you're laughing. We're both in the same quandary. In fact, you're a bigger matrimonial prize than I am. One of these days, you'll be a marquess."
"Ah, but I'm not a marquess yet, am I? That's the difference between us. All I have to offer are expectations. You, on the other hand, are a belted earl with a fortune at your disposal."
A spark of amusement glinted in Jack's eyes. " 'Expectations' be damned! You're wealthy in your own right. It suits your purposes to pretend to be a pauper."
Ash's brows lifted. "Can you blame me? I've no wish to be hounded like you or Devonshire. You see, Jack"--a satirical smile touched his lips--"I want to be loved for myself." He raised his quizzing glass and made a leisurely appraisal of the dance floor. "Is that too much to ask?"
Jack lounged against the pillar and eyed his friend with interest. "Careful, Ash, or you'll find yourself snagged by some dewy-eyed damsel with marriage on her mind."
Ash grinned. "But that's my point. Marriage is payment for services rendered. Love should be free. That's why I prefer to remain a single man."
" 'Love should be free'?" Jack made a small sound of derision. "Try telling that to the fair Venuses who hang around the Palais Royal. Haven't you noticed that they swarm around the man who has made a killing at the gaming tables? Wife or courtesan, it's hard to tell the difference."
Ash turned his quizzing glass upon Jack. "You're in an odd humor," he said. "I've never heard you complain of the Venuses at the Palais Royal. What's brought this on?"
Jack shrugged. "I miss my dog. She, at least, loves me unconditionally."
Ash laughed. "She's a slut. You told me so yourself. You never know who has been bedding her until the pups arrive."
"Ah, but I know it's me she really loves." His smile faded and he said in an undertone, "Don't look now, but our host has discovered our lair and is coming this way."
Ash lowered his quizzing glass. "Well, Jack," he said, "what is it to be? Shall we do our duty and partner one of those dewy-eyed damsels you mentioned, or shall we hide under that table over there and, if we're discovered, pretend to be looking for a priceless ring one of us has lost?"
"Ever the humorist," murmured Jack. "I prefer to meet my fate head-on."
"Better you than me. Ah, look who has just arrived, Lady Pamela Howe. Excuse me, Jack."
Jack was amused. Lady Pamela was an heiress, and his friend's strategic pursuit would only reinforce the fiction that Ash was in need of a rich wife to fill the family's empty coffers. Cautious fathers did not encourage their daughters to court fortune hunters. He wondered why he had not devised a similar ploy to save himself from the huntresses.
The answer came to him unbidden. Because, of course, Ash's grandfather, the marquess, lived in the wilds of Scotland. No one really knew him. His family, on the other hand, lived in Sussex, and there was also a town house in London. As a result, everyone knew their business. If he pleaded poverty, no one would believe him.
He sighed when he felt the hand on his shoulder. Resigned, smiling faintly, he turned to acknowledge his host, the ambassador.
Sir Charles said, "Can't have you standing around, Jack, setting a bad example to all the young sprigs. Allow me to introduce you to any lady of your choosing." In a humorous vein, he added, "One dance is all I ask, then you're free to leave and enjoy all the dissolute attractions of the Palais Royal."
Excerpted from The Marriage Trap by Elizabeth Thornton. Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Thornton. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.