The Marriage Trap

By: Elizabeth Thornton

For my husband, Forbes.

Remember Paris?

Chapter 1

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 readmittance 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.