The Marriage Trap
Ellie Brans-Hill and Jack Rigg met when he was expelled from Oxford at 17 and sent to board with and be tutored by Ellie’s vicar father. Ellie had a huge crush on Jack that manifested itself in practical jokes, which Jack was kind enough to tolerate. Fifteen years later, Ellie is now a paid companion/chaperone and Jack is an ex-soldier who recently inherited the title of Lord Radleigh from his elder brother. They meet again at a ball in Paris, six months after Waterloo, but he doesn’t recognize Ellie in her drab companion garb.
Ellie’s brother, Robbie, is also in Paris – though he should be at Oxford – and up to his eyeballs in debt to moneylenders. Time for “Madame Aurora” to come to the rescue! Ellie is a mathematical whiz, and this, along with tutelage from her uncle, makes her a “virtuoso” – an unbeatable gambler. When she and Robbie are in need of funds, Ellie becomes “Madame Aurora” and wins what they need.
After an evening at the gambling tables, she gets caught up in a riot only to be saved by Jack, who still doesn’t recognize her but is quite taken with “Madame Aurora.” She manages to elude him, eventually, but not before sharing several heated kisses in his rooms.
Returning to her own hotel, she finds that her employer’s diamonds have been stolen and Ellie is the only hotel patron missing. She has no choice but to claim Jack, who is quite angry at having been duped, as her alibi. He has successfully avoided the marriage trap since he came into the title and is not about to be snared by Ellie. He is relieved, if a bit bemused, by the fact that she doesn’t wish to marry him either. She is fired, collects her brother, pays his debt and leaves for England.
After she’s gone, Jack learns just who she is and that Robbie is in more trouble than just being in debt: he has been accused of killing an actress. Out of a sense of obligation to his old tutor – and no little amount on intrigue with Ellie/”Madame Aurora” – he agrees to a commission from the English Ambassador to France to look after them and to help solve Robbie’s dilemma. Back in England, Jack again saves Ellie when her rooms are ransacked and the ensuing scandal guarantees that they will marry this time.
Now, here’s my problem with this scenario: Ellie hates being a companion, and it is difficult to maintain the funds to keep Robbie in school. Why, if all she has to do is go out and win whatever she needs at any time, does she not just do so and win enough so that she can live independently and in comfort, rather than being beholden to others to make a living? There are a couple of mentions about how Ellie’s scruples as a vicar’s daughter keep her from gambling too much, but it’s a specious argument at best, and hypocritical at worst.
If you can ignore the implausibility of Ellie’s convenient gambling scruples, this is a very good read. Jack is a good guy and, once he works it all out, is thrilled to be with Ellie and all the memories of a better time that she invokes, even though he has a hard time with “the L-word.” Ellie is not as sanguine. Her young girl crush quickly turns into a grown-up love, but she is prickly and outspoken, uncomfortable around Jack’s family and afraid of showing any vulnerability. However, she has a spine of steel; I liked her very much and when she and Jack finally come together, it is sexy and funny and touching.
Although I figured out early on who murdered the actress, this storyline took several twists and turns I didn’t foresee, which is always appreciated. I’ve found Elizabeth Thornton to be a consistently good writer, delivering interesting and complex characters with a touch of mystery and intrigue thrown in. Her next two books will feature Ash and Brand, two friends of Jack’s who played key roles in this novel without wearing neon badges tacked to their waistcoats that read “Next Book’s Hero.” The badges were more of the muted pastel variety, but nonetheless, I’m looking forward to reading their stories.