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Hallam Ravenscar, now a major in His Majesty's Own elite cavalry regiment, and the recipient of some half-a-dozen medals for gallantry on the field, straightened an imaginary crease in his immaculate coat of blue superfine and placed a diamond stickpin in the soft folds of his cravat. His short dark hair was brushed casually into a fashionable style and he looked the complete man about town, his eyes grey with a look of steel in them. Having returned to England after Napoleon was finally defeated to the shocking tragedy of his cousin Mark's murder, he had played his part in the unmasking of an evil rogue. He was now in London to see his man of business and to purchase a wedding gift for his cousin Captain Adam Miller to Miss Jenny Hastings.
A half-sigh left his lips for he had been urged by his lawyers and agents to consider marrying an heiress, too. Indeed, it must be marriage or the more drastic step of selling his late father's estate, which was at present burdened with insupportable debt. His father had been a lifelong gambler and after the death of the wife he'd adored, he had plunged deeper and deeper into the abyss.
Hallam had been fighting for his life in France when his father succumbed to a virulent fever and it was only on his return to England that he truly understood what awaited him.
'You have little choice, sir,' Mr Hatton, his father's lawyer, told him. 'Had your father lived he must have sold most of the estate but since his death I have had hard work of it to keep the bank from foreclosing. It would be better to sell than let them simply take the estate. That way you might save something.'
Hallam knew that he was close to ruin. He had the small estate his maternal grandfather had left to him, but that was little more than a large farmhouse and some one hundred acres, most of which was let to tenants. Together with his pay, it had brought him sufficient income to sustain him as a cavalry officer, but was hardly enough to support a wife and family in style, unless he could find another source of income. Adam had invited him to come in as a partner with a wine-importing business, and Hallam had agreed. He would need to sell his commission and that would bring sufficient funds for a modest investmentbut what of the future?
His lawyer had made no bones about it. 'Your mother was the youngest daughter of an earl, Major Ravenscar, and your father the younger son of an old and respected family. You do not at present have a title to offer, but I think you might find that the daughter of a rich merchant would welcome an offer.'
'Good grief, you want me to sell myself?'
Hallam had greeted the suggestion with horror and disgust, but in truth he could see very little alternative. He might make a fortune with Adam, but that was well into the future. In the meantime he had two choices, neither of which appealed.
Damn it! He would not think about the problem of his estate tonight. He was engaged to meet some friends to dine, and from there they would go on to a card party at the house of Lord Devenish. He understood there would be some dancing after the musical recital for those that cared for itnothing lavish, just a few couples standing up in the gallery.
He picked up his swordstick and hat, gave himself another depreciating look and left his lodgings to keep the appointment. It was years since Hal had thought of marriage, being content to flirt mildly with charming young ladies and enjoy a friendly relationship with an obliging widow while on service in Spain and France.
How could he even consider marriage when his heart had never completely healed? Madeline had dealt his heart and his pride a severe blow. While the pain had subsided gradually, and a harder, stronger man had been forged in the fires of battle, Hal had never felt anything stronger than affection for the lady who had so kindly tended his wounds and given generously of herself.
Had he wished to marry for comfort's sake, he could not have done better than to wed Mrs Sarah Bowman, for she had been a soldier's wife and would have been willing to follow the drumbut Hal did not wish for a wife. How could he marry when his heart was dead? Madeline had killed it when she married her count for his money.
It was ridiculous to think of Madeline. She had long forgotten himand was probably content in her marriage with several children at her skirts.
The picture gave him pain and he put it from his mind. He must forget Madeline and move on. Perhaps it would be better to take his lawyer's advice and seek out the daughter of a wealthy Cit, who would be grateful to offer her father's money in return for a home and a place in society.
His lips curled with distaste at the idea, but he would not be the first or the last to seek a solution to his money problems in this way.
If the worst came to the worst, he would consider it, but for the moment he would look for other ways to pay his debts.
Lord Devenish's rooms were overflowing with guests, all of them enjoying the fine champagne and other wines, which waiters offered them constantly as they circulated with trays. Hal accepted a glass and sipped it, moving through the crowded rooms and stopping now and then to talk to people he knew. He was hailed as a hero by many, welcomed home and greeted warmly. His bravery had been mentioned in dispatches and everyone was eager to congratulate him, asking how long he intended to stay in London and offering invitations to all manner of events.
'The Regent told me you were an outstanding officer,' Lord Devenish told him as he clapped him on the shoulder and welcomed him to the house. 'Knew your father well, m'boyand regretted what happened at the end. If you need any advice or help you know where to come.'
'Thank you, sir,' Hallam said and smiled. 'I do not suppose you know of an heiress in desperate need of a husband?'
He meant it as a jest, to turn off the offer of help, but his host looked grave and then light dawned in his eyes. 'As it happens I do, Hallam my dear fellow. Her father is indebted to me for various matters of business I put in his way and told me he would like to see his girl settled with a decent fellow. He made it plain that he doesn't look for money, but a good family and the entry into society is what is hoped for. Would you like me to arrange a meeting?'
'Oh, I hardly think it necessary just yet,' Hal said lightly. 'It would be a last resort, sir.'
'Well, I can't vouch for the girl's looks or manners, never seen herbut I'll ask them to a supper party and send you an invitation. Make up your mind when you've seen her.'
Hallam thanked him and passed on as some newcomers arrived. He had spoken lightly, but his host had taken him seriouslybut he would not think of a marriage of convenience just yet.
As the rooms filled up, the ladies took their seats for the musical recital, but most of the men moved into the card room, where several tables had been set up in readiness. Hal was invited to join a hand of whist for modest stakes and accepted. He was a skilled player and won as often as he lost. Provided he stayed within the limits he'd set himself for his lifestyle, he did not consider it wrong to gamble a little. Unlike his father, he never played the dice or faro, though he enjoyed a game of skill.
His luck was mixed that evening for he won the first hand with his partner, lost the second and third, then won the fourth, which meant he rose from the tables for supper in no worse case than he had been when he sat down.
Making his way into the supper room, he helped himself to a small pastry and ate it, sipped some wine, then made his way out to the terrace to smoke a cigar. A lady was about to enter the supper room and for a moment he stood in her way. He apologised and glanced at her face, feeling shocked as he saw the beautiful sophisticated lady whose path he'd blocked. Her hair was piled high upon her head, one long ringlet falling on to a white shoulder, her gown cut daringly low to show off the sweet valley between milky-white breasts. So far different from the girl he'd known was she that he spoke without thinking.
'Madeline good grief! I should not have known you.'
For a moment she seemed too stunned to answer, then a look of sadness swept into her eyes. 'I dare say you think me much changed, for I am older.'
'No, no, you are beautiful,' he said, recovering. 'You have become a great lady, Madeline.'
'It is the gown,' she said and a half-smile was on her lips. 'I had heard you were homeand I was sad to hear of Mark's death. You must have felt it deeply. You were always close as young men.'
'We became even closer for we served together in France,' he said. 'How are you? You look very well.'
'I am quite well,' she said. 'I am glad to have seen you. Please excuse me, sir. I went out for some air and my husband will look for me.'
Hal stood to one side, allowing her to pass. For a moment as he'd looked at her the years had slipped away and he'd forgotten their parting, forgotten the pain she had so carelessly inflicted. Now he had remembered and he felt the bitterness sweep over him.
She was obviously content with her life and her marriage, and why should she not be? The diamond necklace she was wearing must have cost a king's ransom. He was a damned fool even to think of her. She had made her own life and he must make his. Perhaps he should move on in his life, make a marriage of convenience, as Madeline had.
He walked about the terrace, smoking his cheroot and then threw it into the bushes. He would speak to Devenish, ask him to arrange that supper party soon. If the heiress were presentable andmore importantlyagreeable, he might as well take the easy way out and marry her.
* * *
Madeline entered the hot, overcrowded rooms and realised she could not bear it another moment. Her throat was tight with emotion and she felt close to tears. How unfortunate to bump into Hal like that! He had been much in her thoughts these past weeks, since Lethbridge had told her about Mark Ravenscar's murder. She had longed to write to Hal and tell him how sad she was, but it would not have been permitted. Indeed, she dare not for fear of what her husband might think or do.
Lethbridge was unpredictable in his moods. When she pleased him, he would buy her a new jewel or a stylish gown such as the one she was wearing this evening, but he was often jealous and if she appeared to enjoy the company of a gentleman too much he would come to her room last thing at night and rage at her. Sometimes he would punish her.
When they first married, she had tried to be a good wife to him, welcoming him to their bed with a smile, but he was a cruel man and he had taken her without thought for her pleasure, subjecting her to things that shocked her innocence, as if she were a whore rather than an innocent girl. It was a long time since she had been able to smile at him or do anything but freeze when he touched her.
A little shudder went through her for her husband had been in an odd mood of late. Their relationship had been deteriorating for some time, because of their unfortunate situation. Lethbridge needed a son to succeed him, but Madeline doubted it would ever happen. Her husband blamed her, though what she could do about it when he'd ceased to visit her bed long since she did not know. When he did come to her it was to punish her rather than make love to her.
She blinked hard, blocking out the tears that threatened. She would not pity herself simply because she'd seen Hallambeen so close to him that she might have touched him, had she dared. Pain ravaged her, but she struggled to keep an appearance of calm. No one must be allowed to see her distress. Pride was all she had left. She did not ask for pity. Indeed, she would not allow it. She had married for the sake of her family and nothing had changed. Nothing could ever change while
No, she would not think of that now. She had the beginnings of an unpleasant headache and all she wanted was to go home. In her own room she could give way to the tears that might bring some relief to her distress.
She stopped a passing footman and asked for her carriage to be brought round.
Only when she was being helped inside did she ask for her husband to be told that she had retired with a headache. The last thing she needed was to drag Lethbridge from his cards to accompany her home. He would be angry either way, but tonight she needed a little solitude.
Seeing Hallam so unexpectedly and at such close quarters had brought home her wretchedness. She must hope that Lethbridge would play late and be too tired or too drunk to bother with her when he returned. In the morning she would have recovered sufficiently to face him, but if he questioned her tonight she was not sure she could hide her despair.
Fortunately, Madeline's husband had enjoyed a successful evening at the tables and had ignored the message that his wife had gone home because of a headache. Rising from the tables at three in the morning with his pockets filled with the guineas he'd won from his companions, he'd called for his carriage, which Madeline had had the forethought to send back for his convenience. Conveyed to his home in a mellow mood, he did not bother with visiting his wife's room, but drank a glass of brandy after his valet had undressed him and went to bed to smile over the evening's play and sleep through until late the next morning.