Authors: Edith Layton
RED JACK’S DAUGHTER
Jessica Eastwood's country sweetheart. Tom Preston, wanted her to be the free and independent spirit that her gallant officer father had raised her to be.
Jessica's irresistibly attractive distant European cousin, Anton Von Keller, wanted to mold her into a sophisticated woman of the world.
Society's most eligible aristocrat. the dazzling Lord Leith, wanted Jessica to be the star of the London Season, a model of feminine beauty and fashion.
But before Jessica could find out which of these women she truly was, she had to decide which one of these maddeningly desirable men she really loved...
It was a warm wet evening in early spring and Lord and Lady Swanson’s grand ballroom was crowded, close, and pervasively damp. Yet there was not a lady present who was not thrilled to be in attendance. Unfor
unately there was also scarcely a male present who did not at least once cast a longing glance over toward the tightly latched windows. But not only would it have been social suicide for a fellow to approach an exit, in many cases actual homicide might have resulted if any gentleman attempted an escape from this night’s magnificent affair.
The bone-chilling freak winter of 1814 was at an end and this evening’s fete was one of the last great social events of the season. The new crop of eligible females who had been launched the previous autumn now had only a few short weeks in which to make their conquests. Clearly, they needed assistance.
Their mamas, elder sisters, and aunts who were crammed into the vast room with them knew that this late in the season, declarations might be wrung out of reluctant suitors only by a kind of plotting that would put Wellington and his staff to shame.
Thus, while the Incomparable, the Honorable Miss Merriman, flashed her magnificent eyes and flirted with four young gentlemen, wise mamas knew that the Incomparable could legally wed only one of them. They knew full well that the other three would soon be fair sport for their as-yet-unattached and not quite so incomparable young daughters. Now was the time to gild their tender young lilies with talk of dowries, lands, and handsome annuities.
Papas were there too, in great numbers, to verify fortune and acreage, along with uncles, brothers, cousins, and family friends, all weaving tight nets to catch possible suitors.
Although most of them would rather have been any other place in London this evening, as they valued their necks they were gracing this final great ball. It was their duty to be part of this babbling, pressing throng and it was very fortunate that neither Lord nor Lady Swanson could read lips or minds.
“Gad,” Sir Selby whispered to his companion, “must be a thousand here. Isn’t there some sort of law against such crowds?”
“Only if someone’s giving a political speech,” his secretary answered lightly, watching his employer mop his brow again.
“Devil of a thing,” Sir Selby complained as he replaced his damp handkerchief in his pocket. “Hot as Hades, between the musicians and the talk, I can’t hear myself think. Lady Grantham is giving me dagger looks and he ain’t here yet. Tell you, if he don’t show, you’ll have to step in for him.”
The slight, pale young man smiled apologetically. “I’ll be happy to, sir, but I don’t think that’s what the Lady’s after.”
“Blast, don’t I know it?” Sir Selby grumbled. “I know Alex of old. It isn’t like him not to show. But I brought you just in case.”
The slight gentleman bowed as much as he was able in his cramped space.
“I’ll be happy to help, sir, and moreover, I do think Miss Eastwood is a charming companion. But I can do little more than enable her to stretch her legs a bit. My appearance with her on the dance floor will do nothing for her socially.”
“Be better than her sitting there like a log all night,” Sir Selby groaned. “Damnation, Lady Grantham will have my head on a pike. Is she looking this way, lad?”
“She is looking in no other direction,” the young man replied with a hint of amusement in his voice.
Sir Selby chanced a glance over to a
of the great room where he knew Lady Grantham was sitting. Although she was half in shadow, he could see even from a distance that the Lady was definitely glowering at him.
Sir Selby looked hastily away. He was a stout elderly man with a round pleasant countenance, and what little remained of his hair was silver. He carried himself ramrod-straight as befitted a military man, although he scarcely came up to his slight secretary’s shoulder. He had faced cannon, Napoleon’s troops, and the furor of battle, and still he had feared none of them so much as he did risking another look back at Lady Grantham.
“She still looking?” he asked.
His secretary nodded.
“Gad,” Sir Selby sighed, “it’s almost the shank of the evening. I told Alex the importance of it and he hasn’t shown his face. I didn’t think him so unfeeling. I hope he hasn’t come to harm.”
“Not he, I think,” his secretary replied. “It’s only that it is early hours yet, for him.”
“Aye,” sighed Sir Selby, and he lapsed into silence as he watched the dancers swirl about the floor.
None of the ladies looked so well as they had when he’d arrived, he thought with relief. The heat and the dampness had taken its toll on all the careful coiffures and gowns. There’s many a lady here that looks like a dowd now, he thought, brightening a little, even the beauties are looking a bit blown. All to the good for our gal, he thought happily.
But after a half-hour had gone by, which Sir Selby verified for the fourth time by his pocket watch, he sighed again and managed to wedge the watch back into his fob pocket.
“It’s now or never, lad,” he said in hollow tones. “The Regent will be coming soon and that’ll put paid to the dancing. Then they’ll trot out the supper for him, and by the time the music strikes up again it’ll be too late to make much of an impression. You’re for it, lad. I hope you can cavort like a lamb, they’re starting up a country dance. Now shake a leg and get to it. Alex has let us down and you’re our only hope.”
It was at that moment, while the sets were beginning to form for the new dance and weary couples were retreating from the floor, that there was a momentary but distinct lull in the general conversation. It were as though there were suddenly a refreshingly cool wind blowing over them all and heads turned toward the doors. They had opened the doors and a little f
esh air had got in, for there were new arrivals. Sir Selby turned. He could see, even from that distance across the room, who had entered.
“You’re saved, lad,” he said happily. “Run along if you want. No need for reinforcements now.”
His secretary bowed and gratefully took himself off into the warm night, which was several degrees cooler than the vast room. Sir Selby began to edge toward the entrance to the ballroom.
The new arrivals were greeted with much enthusiasm. They were intimates of the Regent’s set, and they were notorious, all of them. The Earl of Trent would be in great demand in the card room, for he was a gamester. Baron Bly attracted all the married ladies, for he was a great flirt; and the Marquis of
Bessacarr would cause much comment, for he was such a mys
erious, elusive fellow. But it was Lord Leith who caused all the females in his vicinity to sigh.
Sir Selby made his way toward him through the throng, stepping upon a few slippers where he had to, causing sharp pains in a few ribs where he must. He had many years in the military to guide him, and where he had to push over heavy ground, he did so with impunity.
“Alex,” he finally said as he came abreast of the lofty newcomer, cutting into some rail
ery he was having with another guest.
“As you see,” Lord Leith replied, bowing, and excused
himself deftly from the gentleman he had been chatting with.
Sir Selby nodded happily. “Right, come with me,” he said abruptly, starting to lead Lord Leith through the crowd back toward the far wall.
“Softly, softly,” Lord Leith said smoothly, and laid a restraining hand upon the older gentleman to stop him. “Don’t rush your fences, old friend. It will appear uncommonly odd if I enter and rush to an unknown’s side. Let us have a glass of something first. What are they serving in this tropic zone?”
“Don’t see why you’re complaining,” Sir Selby said as he changed direction and cleared a path toward the refreshment table. “You’ve done time in India. Punch,” he said absently, handing a cup to his friend. “There’s something in it, but not much.”
Lord Leith sipped at his cup and smiled down at those acquaintances who hailed him. “I believe one could hatch
eggs in here without hens. Have they bricked up all the windows?” he asked in an undervoice.
“Just about,” Sir Selby said, draining his cup. “They’re expecting Prinny, and they know how he detests drafts. So they’re keeping it nice and stuffy so that he won’t bolt the moment he gets here. They’ve even got a fire roaring in the card room.”
Lord Leith sighed. “He’s more likely to drop from the heat, but I can see their point. Still, it won’t help them. I’ve just come from dinner with our Prince, and for once he’s more in the mood for sleep than for applause. He’ll be here, take his bows, and then take himself off and they’ll have gotten their guests into a lather for nothing.”
“For pity’s sake, then, Alex, drop a word in Swanson’s ear before I melt,” the older man begged.
“Alas, no, dear friend. I’m mute. For who’s to say that some full-blown flower won’t catch Prinny’s eye and make a liar of me? No, I fear you’ll have to soldier on and pray that someone is pushed through a window in the crush to get to our dear Regent.”
“Well, then,” Sir Selby said with decision, “let’s get on with it.”
Lord Leith laughed. It was such a rich, amused chuckle that several present, who were not already covertly watching the tall gentleman that had just appeared in their midst, found their eyes turning toward the deep pleasant sound.
“No, no,” he said, sobering, in a lower voice. “That wouldn’t do at all. You said it must seem casual and unrehearsed. I fear you will have to tolerate me for a
longer, and then, when enough time has elapsed, we will seem to just drift unknowing toward my dear aunt and your
Then, and only then, shall I happen upon her, and then, instantly smitten, I shall beg you to make me known to the child.”
“And dance with her,” Sir Selby added insistently.
“In transports of delight,” his tall companion agreed.
Sir Selby, a man of action, stood back on his heels and waited impatiently while his friend engaged in light discourse with another guest. He occupied his time by puffing out his cheeks; when that palled, he paused for a moment to gaze up at his young friend. In doing so, he realized he was only following a general trend. For there were many others, notably female, who were doing the same thing.
It was hard to ignore Lord Leith, Sir Selby had to admit to himself, if only because he was perhaps the tallest fellow in the room. As a man who had once commanded many men, Sir Selby had to acknowledge that the lad was also well-set-up. Alexander, Lord Leith, was, for all his height, well-proportioned, graceful, and lithe. His closely tailored evening clothes showed that his shoulders were wide, his waist narrow, abdomen flat, and legs long and well-muscled. Sir Selby nodded to himself in approval and unconsciously pulled in his own considerable stomach.
But it was Alexander’s face that commanded attention, Sir Selby decided, gratefully letting out his own breath. A generation ago, the older gentleman mused, a face like that need only have shown itself in the heart of Paris and the mob would have gone wild. “Aristo!” the rabble would have shouted after just one look, and the fellow would have been trussed up on a tumbrel on his way to Madame Guillotine before he could have uttered a word in defense. For it was an aristocrat’s face, from its long, high cheekbones to the straight long nose, to the well-proportioned sensitive mouth. Six years in India had not ruined the clear white complexion. The long eyes, so heavily lidded that one would think the fellow dozed when he was not speaking, could open upon the world with a clear, knowing gray gaze. A considerable number of debutantes had practiced saying shocking things just so that they could witness the spectacle of those eyes widening in surprise, and a few had rued the day they had when that bland but chilling gray gaze had locked on to them. An equally impressive number of their bored and wedded sisters had refined upon the notion of witnessing those eyes closing at closer range, as close perhaps as the next pillow. But if any of them had achieved that goal, none knew of it. Lord Leith was a great favorite of the ladies, but the females he consorted with were not equal to that noble designation.