A Shocking Scandal/Anne Ireland
Glancing round the glittering ballroom at the throng of laughing, chattering guests, Jo Hampden stifled a sigh of disappointment. She had expected that this visit would all be so much more exciting! They had been here in Paris a week and as yet she had not seen one gentleman who had made her heart miss a beat. She had been so sure that in this most magical of cities she would be certain to find her prince. Not a real prince of course, but the handsome hero of her dreams, who would sweep her off her feet and carry her away to his castle in the mountains, where they would live amongst the eagles and be almost able to touch the clouds.
Her trouble was undoubtedly that she had a vivid imagination. As a child Jo had often been lost in daydreams, but as she grew up her life became too busy for dreams of any kind, especially after both her elder sisters had married gentlemen of fortune. That meant Mama had relied on Jo more and more, keeping her at home by her side, until she had become suddenly and fatally ill; she’d died only a few days after she caught that awful chill. Jo had been just sixteen and the devastating grief that swept through her had broken her heart. She had wept uncontrollably until Bianca told her to stop feeling sorry for herself and think of Eliza, their youngest sister, who was so often ill.
Jo had felt as if her elder sister had poured cold water over her, but it was the best thing that could have happened, for it had brought Jo to her senses. She had devoted herself to making her youngest sister smile again, and in time they had both benefited from the strong attachment that had formed between them.
Her sisters Bianca and Sarah had put their heads together for it was obvious that the girls could not stay on in their old home alone, even though Jo would have done her best to manage. Since the younger girls did not wish to be separated, it was decided that both would spend a few months with their grandfather, Sir Gerald Hampden, who had taken the shock of his daughter’s death badly. After that they could decide where they wished to make a permanent home, either with Bianca or Sarah.
However, it had not happened quite as expected, for Sarah had given birth to her first child and was delicate for a few months. She had written, asking if Jo would stay with her until she was feeling better, and Eliza had been left to stay with their grandfather. Since Eliza was fond of the elderly gentleman, she had not made a fuss and Jo spent the next year as a companion to her eldest sister. Sarah had soon recovered her health and begun to entertain again, which meant that Jo had been introduced to many of her sister’s friends. She had met quite a few eligible gentlemen but as yet none had touched her heart.
Jo knew that her trouble was that she was an incurable romantic. She was passionately fond of beautiful and wild scenery, and spent hours with her nose in a book, caught up in the fables of the courtly heroes of a time long past. She longed to be caught up in some adventure, rescued from dragons or awakened from her sleep by a kiss from a handsome price.
'What was that sigh for, my love?'
Jo turned to her companion and gave a slight shake of her head, conscious that she was being ungrateful. Mrs Buckley, a woman in her middle years, and a great friend of Sarah’s, had put herself to considerable trouble to bring Jo on this trip, and the least she could do was to appear to enjoy it.
'It was nothing, ma’am. Merely that I do not see many of our acquaintance here this evening.'
'There you are wrong, Jo. For I have just seen Chalmont and he is coming this way. I dare say he means to ask you to dance.'
Jo saw the gentleman her companion had mentioned almost at the same moment, but her spirits were not greatly uplifted by his approach. He was held to be attractive by society and his manner was undoubtedly charming, but somehow Jo did not particularly care for the gentleman.
'May I say how lovely you look this evening, Mademoiselle Hampden?' The Comte bowed to her punctiliously. 'Would you do me the honour of standing up for this next dance with me?'
'You are very kind, sir.'
Jo could not very well refuse without appearing rude. Besides, her card was far from full and she did not wish to sit down all evening. So she gave him her hand, allowing him to lead her on to the dance floor.
She was at least able to enjoy the dancing, for the Comte was good mannered and held her at just the right distance without pressing her too intimately, and he was besides an excellent dancer. When he returned her to her companion's side at the end of their dance, lingering only long enough to secure another dance with her later, Jo was pleased to discover that her friend, Anne Arlington, had arrived with her Mama.
'Oh, I am so glad you have come,' Jo said and kissed her cheek, whispering in her ear, 'Most of the guests seem so much older than us this evening. I was beginning to think there was no one I could talk to sensibly; they all look to be in danger of falling asleep on their feet!'
'How naughty you are,' Anne replied tapping her with a delicate fan. 'But I must admit I have felt the same at times. I can't wait for my brother to join us in Paris. He and his friend Lord Finchley are arriving in a day or so.'
'You will be pleased to see your brother no doubt.'
Jo wondered at little at her friend's blush but at that moment two young and undeniably attractive gentlemen approached and within seconds the girls were dancing with new partners.
After that Jo found that she was seldom left to sit alone and she did not have time to let her thoughts wander. It was true that most of the gentlemen present at the prestigious ball were older than the two girls, but since they were all unfailingly charming and considerate Jo was soon laughing, her foolish dreams of romance forgotten for the moment.
It was not until quite late in the evening that Jo noticed a little stir as a newcomer entered the ballroom. A small group of ladies and gentlemen immediately gathered to greet him. She could not see much of him because of the crowd around him, but he seemed important for it was obvious that his arrival had caused some excitement. Able only to catch a glimpse of his profile as he paused a few minutes before moving on, Jo thought he looked rather cold and proud. Then for one second as he turned his head, his eyes seemed to stare in her direction, but they did not see her for he appeared to look beyond her, as if he were bored by his surroundings and wished himself elsewhere.
He was clearly uninterested in the dancing and soon moved away into the next room, where several card tables had been set up to amuse those gentlemen who did not care to dance.
'Who was that gentleman?' Jo asked her companion.'
'What gentleman, Jo?'
'The one who seemed to cause something of a stir just now.'
'I really have no idea,' Mrs Buckley said. 'I cannot say I noticed anything in particular.'
'I did,' Anne Arlington said. 'He was rather handsome, with a slightly foreign look. He was certainly not English. I think perhaps Italian or Spanish, European certainly.'
'A foreign prince or something of the sort so I heard,' the dowager Marchioness of Arlington supplied the answer. 'You know the French always make a fuss of these petty princelings. I do not suppose he was of any real consequence at all. At least he would not be thought so in the best circles at home.'
Jo found Lady Arlington's manner a little overbearing. It was a trifle unkind of her to slight the young man and she was glad he had not heard. Her brief glimpse of his proud rather noble face had made her heart miss a beat, though she was not sure why. He had not even been looking at her.
Jo smothered her sigh. She must be grateful for this chance to mix in Parisian society and enjoy it and not let her head be turned by a man who had not even noticed her.
* * * *
One thing that Paris could not be faulted for was the shopping, Jo thought as she and her companion were driven back to their hotel the next morning. She had indulged herself shamelessly with the purchase of all manner of pretty trifles, urged on by Mrs Buckley who assured her that it was in order for her to spend as much as she had.
'Your grandfather told me that I was not to penny pinch in the matter of your wardrobe, my love. He wants you to have everything that a young lady of fashion needs for your coming season in London.'
'Grandfather is very kind,' Jo replied. 'But I am not sure that I ought to spend too much.'
'You are a long way from doing that,' her companion said with an indulgent look. 'You are very pretty, Jo, and if you are fortunate you may make an excellent match. I am sure your husband will want to indulge your whims.'
'Oh, no ...' Jo began but forgot what she meant to say as they entered the hotel. A man was standing at the desk talking to the clerk, and although she was able to see only his profile, she believed it was the man who had caused a slight stir the previous evening.
He turned towards them and she saw that his skin had a slightly dusky look, which was a little deeper than most Europeans’ and, with his noble features and dark, hawk-like eyes, gave him an exotic appearance. He was smiling and his teeth were exceptionally white against that sunburned complexion, his build and vitality that of a man honed to a rare perfection seldom seen amongst the gentlemen Jo had been accustomed to meeting in France.
She thought that she had never seen such a handsome man and her heart beat very fast for a few moments, as their eyes seemed to lock. She found herself drawn to him, lingering as if willing him to speak to her, but instead it was her companion who spoke, breaking the spell.
'Come along, Jo – what are you waiting for?'
The older woman turned to look at what had caught her companion's eye and frowned slightly. It was obvious that she thought the stranger was showing his admiration for her pretty charge a little too openly, and she took hold of Jo’s arm, giving her a push towards the hotel's grand staircase.
'There's no need to poke me,' Jo said, a slightly petulant look in her eyes. 'Why are you in such a hurry all at once?'
'You must rest or you will be too tired to enjoy yourself this evening.'
Jo controlled the urge to look back as she began to climb the stairs, but the tingling in her spine made her believe that the stranger was still watching her. He had been as interested in her as she was in him – or was she merely flattering herself?
From his dress and his air of assurance he was clearly a gentleman, and a wealthy one she would imagine. He had been wearing a coat of blue superfine, which had been fashioned by the finest tailors and fitted his body like a second skin, and on the little finger of his left hand she had noticed an exceptionally fine diamond ring.
'Why did you rush me away just now?' Jo asked her companion as they entered their own suite and she paused to glance at her reflection in one of the huge gilt mirrors that adorned the walls. She fussed with her bonnet before removing it. ‘I was intrigued by the gentleman we saw at the reception.’
'He was staring at you and you were staring back,' Mrs Buckley said with a reproving frown. 'We have not been introduced to the gentleman – whoever he is - and therefore you should have pretended not to notice him looking at you.'
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Bought For the Harem is my latest Anne Herries book in Uk - and the next paperback is the hostage, available December. Until then there's A Shocking Scandal for you to enjoy.
Best wishes Linda Sole/Anne Herries/Anne Ireland