From the diary of Miss Jane Middleton, April 21st, 1814:
I have discovered since my arrival in London that attending a fashionable ball is rather like being a player in a theatre production.
To begin with, everyone is expected to know their character and their precise stage directions.
Older gentlemen, who are notoriously hard of hearing, are placed well away from the orchestra so they may bellow at one another without disturbing the dancers.
Matrons and dowagers are situated in a prominent position so that they may comfortably dispose of the reputations of the various guests.
The young, dashing blades and débutantes blessed with natural grace and beauty are allowed their privileged place in center stage as they flirt and twirl about the dance floor.
And last, and perhaps least, the unfortunate wallflowers are gathered together in a discrete, shadowed corner, rather like a forgotten, ill-tended garden.
Woe be it to any player who does not meekly submit to his or her proper role . . .
Miss Jane Middleton was frankly miserable.
She hated London. She hated the thick, black air. The narrow, crowded streets. The endless noise. The arrogant, utterly shallow Ton. And most of all, she hated the painful, torturous humiliation of what was politely termed the “Marriage Mart.”
Who could have suspected that it would prove to be as delightful as having a tooth drawn?
Without a mother to warn her of the pitfalls, she had simply presumed that all maidens traveled to London and were introduced to a number of gentlemen anxious to discover a wife.
She possessed no great expectations.
She knew she was plain of feature and far too outspoken for a maiden. She was also three and twenty, well past the age of a proper
But she did possess a sizeable fortune as well as an unentitled estate in Surrey that would surely be a temptation. It seemed reasonable that she could discover a kindly disposed gentleman who would welcome such material possessions.
How could she have suspected that she would be so swiftly judged and found wanting? Or that because she was not a Diamond of the First Water she was expected to politely remain in the corner, ignored and forgotten by the various gentlemen?
Really, it was enough to make any woman screech in frustration.
And it did not help to have her obvious failure made the source of amusement by those maidens who had achieved social success.
Shifting uneasily upon the hard, uncomfortable seat, Jane stoically attempted to ignore the two pretty maidens who had halted next to the clutch of wallflowers who had been thrust into a darkened corner.
Over the past few weeks she had endured any number of snubs, insults, and cruel taunts from Miss Fairfax and Miss Tully. They seemed to take particular delight in torturing those poor maidens already suffering beneath society’s disdain. She had swiftly learned the only means of enduring their rude taunts was simply to pretend that she did not notice them.
Almost on cue, the tiny, blond-haired Miss Fairfax loosed a shrill giggle as she pointedly glanced toward Jane. “Really, Marianna, is it truly not pathetic? To just imagine an entire evening spent without one gentleman asking for a dance or even bothering to make his bow in your direction. How utterly embarrassing it must be for them.”
The taller, raven-haired Miss Tully wrinkled her nose as if she had caught a whiff of some particularly nasty odor. “You would think that they would eventually realize that they are unwelcome.”
Jane clutched her fan until she feared it might snap. Inwardly she allowed a delightful image to form of the two maidens being tumbled into a large, putrid midden heap.
Or perhaps roasting over a fire. Slowly.
“If only it were possible to ban them. It would be for their own good, after all,” Miss Fairfax twittered. “Surely they cannot enjoy an evening of being snubbed and ignored?”
“Perhaps they do not possess the wits to realize that they are so ill-favored that they will never attract the notice of an eligible gentleman? After all, they are desperately persistent.”
“True enough, although I fear that persistence will not be enough to lure a partner to this dismal corner.”
Miss Tully gave an unpleasant laugh. “Well, perhaps Pudding-faced Simpson. Or poor, doddy Lord Hartstone. It is said he requested a potted plant to honor him with a waltz last week.”
Miss Fairfax gave a dismissive sniff. “Not even he is so doddy as to desire a dance with that lot.”
Jane bit the side of her lip until she drew blood. Oh yes, she definitely wanted them roasting over a slow, hot fire. With an apple stuck in their shrill mouths.
It was not that she often concerned herself with what others might say. After all, she had been flouting convention since her father had insisted that she be trained to take over his numerous business concerns. But the scandalous disapproval had never struck a nerve. She had known deep within herself that she was perfectly capable of performing as well as any man.
This, however . . .
This disdain struck far too close to the truth, she grudgingly acknowledged. After several weeks she still had not attracted the attention of a respectable gentleman. Or any gentleman, for that matter. If the truth be told, they avoided her as if she carried the pox.
At the moment it seemed more likely that she would sprout wings and fly than find a husband.
“True enough,” Miss Tully drawled, and then thankfully she was distracted by a movement across the crowded dance floor. “Oh, oh. Look, ’tis Hellion.”
With a nerve-wrenching squeal Miss Fairfax was bouncing on her toes to catch sight of the current toast of London society, Mr. Caulfield, a devilishly handsome gentleman who managed to send every woman in London fluttering like a batch of witless butterflies.
“Are you certain?”
“I am hardly likely to confuse him with any other gentleman, am I?” Miss Tully demanded in tart tones.
“No,” Miss Fairfax was forced to agree with a dramatic sigh. “What other gentleman could possibly be so elegant or so handsome?”
“Or so rakishly charming.”
“How utterly delicious he is.”
“A pity he never pays heed to
. That is the sort of husband I desire.”
The blonde slid her companion a sly glance. “My mother says that a clever female could capture his elusive attention. He is after all a man, and as capable of tumbling into love as the next.”
Predictably Miss Tully frowned in a sour fashion. It did not appear that friendship could be allowed to interfere in the all-important hunt for a husband.
“I suppose that you believe you are clever enough to win his heart?” she scoffed.
“We shall see.” Miss Fairfax gave a shrug before wrapping her arm through Miss Tully’s. “Come, he will certainly never stray toward these wretched creatures. Let us stroll closer to him.”
Together the two maidens set off in determined pursuit of Mr. Caulfield and Jane allowed herself to glare at their retreating backs.
Really, it was bad enough to endure being ignored, shoved aside, and at times given the cut direct. But to be taunted by two maidens without a breath of sense between them was beyond the pale.
She was in control of a vast fortune, she managed her own estate, and she had earned the respect of hardened businessmen who would have sworn that a female was incapable of caring for her own pin money.
It was unbearable that she should be judged less worthy than those twits simply because she did not possess a scrap of beauty.
In dire need of a moment’s respite from the choking heat and ill-disguised glances of disdain from the vast crowd, Jane rose to her feet.
Gads, she would give up half her fortune for the opportunity to return to the quiet peace of Surrey.
“A few weeks in the country would surely not be so dreadful, Biddles. There are certain to be a few odd companions rattling about and, of course, there is always the pleasure of avoiding such tedious balls as this.” The gentleman simply known as Hellion leaned against the wall in a corner of the crowded ballroom.
There were any number of rumors as to how he acquired the title.
Elderly gentlemen were convinced it came from his aggravating habit of shocking society with his outrageous antics. In the past ten years he had disrupted a ball at Carlton House by bringing with him a monkey that had promptly stolen Lord Marton’s wig and sent poor old Lord Osburn into a fit of the vapors. He had attired his mistress as a young blade and audaciously brought her to several gentlemen’s clubs. He had made an appearance in a particularly bawdy play and only last year appeared at his uncle’s wedding attired in the deepest mourning.
Elderly women were convinced the name came from his habit of ignoring respectable females and openly preferring the companionship of seasoned courtesans and wicked widows.
Young ladies, of course, believed it was his devilish beauty. He was, in truth, indecently handsome. Golden hair that shimmered like the softest satin was carelessly brushed toward features carved by the hand of an angel. His brow was wide and his nose aquiline. If there was a hint of arrogance in the high, prominent cheekbones and square cut chin no one had ever been heard to complain. Even his form was magnificent in its chiseled perfection.
And his eyes . . .
Those black, wicked eyes.
The eyes of a rake, a rogue . . . a sinner.
It was little wonder maidens sighed in rapture when he glanced in their direction. And young gentlemen futilely attempted to ape his elegance.
Only Hellion knew the precise day he had acquired the notorious title. It was a day that would be forever branded upon his mind. And one that he had no intention of revealing to anyone.
“My dear Hellion, have you taken utter leave of your senses?” The small, sharp-featured gentleman drawled softly at his side. “You know how I detest the country. All that fresh air and mud. It cannot possibly be good for a gentleman’s constitution. That is not even to mention the danger of all those filthy cows that are always lurking about. Who can say when they might decide to bolt and trample some innocent victim?” He gave a delicate shudder. “No, no. I fear that I cannot possibly leave London at the height of the Season.”
Hellion lifted a restless shoulder. He had no more desire than his companion to flee town during the fashionable month of April. Still, what could he do? His countless creditors were becoming positively vulgar.
“As enchanting as I find London to be, I fear it might not be quite so lovely from behind the walls of Newgate.”
Lord Horatio Bidwell, more affectionately known as Biddles, lifted a brow. “Surely matters have not progressed to such a dismal state?”
Hellion grimaced. In truth, he had managed to land himself in a devilish coil. Certainly not the first occasion, but by far the most tedious.
“I assure you that I have found myself at point-non-plus,” he confessed in low tones. “I have never made a habit of living within my income, which to be honest is hardly adequate for a fishmonger, certainly not for a gentleman of fashion. My extravagances hardly mattered as long as I remained the heir apparent to the Earl of Falsdale. Creditors were delighted to court my favor and I was just as delighted to accept their generosity. But now . . .”
The flamboyantly attired Biddles lifted a dainty handkerchief to his nose. To all the world he appeared no more than another ridiculous fop that littered society. Only a select few were allowed to realize the shrewd, near brilliant wits behind the silly image.
“But now that the current earl has chosen to take a wife young enough to be his granddaughter, your role as heir apparent has become considerably less secure?”
Hellion struggled to maintain his air of casual nonchalance. Who would have thought his pompous prig of an uncle would choose to wed when he was near to sixty? Or that he would select a bride barely out of the schoolroom?
It would have been humorous to see the old windbag making a twit of himself over a mere child if it hadn’t made Hellion’s life a sudden grief.
“Quite odious of him, I must admit,” he retorted in determinedly calm tones. “He could at least have possessed the decency to choose a bride who was not quite so obviously capable of producing the next heir. Since the wedding I have been besieged by frantic bill collectors demanding payment.”
“The old earl cannot be trusted to take care of such nasty business?”
Hellion stiffened in distaste. He would flee abroad before he crawled on his knees to his uncle. “No.”
The pale eyes narrowed with swift comprehension. “I see. If your uncle cannot be depended upon then you must turn your attention to other means of acquiring the necessary funds. Gambling, of course, is far too unpredictable, unless one happens to possess a talent for cheating. And I have discovered to my own dismay that the lottery is not at all a reliable means of holding off the vultures.” There was a moment’s pause. “Ah, but of course. There is one certain means of repairing the empty coffers.”
“Indeed?” Hellion smiled wryly. “And how is that?”
“Why, all you need do is to turn your attention to the numerous
. There seems to be an endless gaggle of them and more than one will bring with them a sizeable dowry. Some of them in fact possess an embarrassment of riches. You could be comfortably settled within a month if you wished.”
Hellion glanced about the elegant guests with a shudder. To his shame, he had briefly considered the notion of marrying a fortune. It would certainly put an end to his current troubles and ensure that his notorious appetite for the finer things in life would remain appeased.