Why couldn’t I stop thinking about them? About him? I had never thought much about a man before. The way they behaved themselves, regardless of their looks, had always been enough to make me want to give them a good kick in the backside. But there was something about Mr Ambrose, something about those dark sea-coloured eyes, his granite face and the way he held himself, ramrod-straight and immovable, which I couldn’t get out of my head. I had a feeling that if I tried to kick him, I would end up breaking every single one of my toes.
I wanted to go to him, to grab this golden opportunity, and at the same time I wanted nothing so much as to run away to hide in some corner where his dark eyes couldn’t find me. If I only knew more about him, knew who or what he was and what I would be facing, maybe I could work up the courage to go to his office. But how in the world could I find out anything about him?
‘…and Sir Ralley was so taken with the French Countess, I doubt he’ll be able to resist another week. If he doesn’t propose soon, I know nothing about London society. And I’m an expert, trust me. It’s a marvel that…’
My hand froze in mid-air, half a herring hanging from my fork. Anne’s words, which I had only heard by accident, had struck me like a thunderbolt.
I’m an expert. Trust me.
That was it! I just might find out more about him simply by asking! After all, I had a veritable fountain of information about London’s society at my disposal. Two of them, in fact, or even three if you counted my aunt, who, although she wasn’t able to go out as much as Anne and Maria, was just as addicted to the gossip of the high society. And to the high society, I was sure by now in spite of his simple attire, Mr Ambrose belonged without a doubt.
It was still unlikely that they would know of him. There were thousands of upper-class people residing in London, the capital of the world. But asking couldn’t hurt.
‘Err… I have a question,’ I said, laying down my fork and bisected herring.
Maria waved a hand. ‘Oh, leave us alone with your talks of politics and adventure stories and God knows what else, Lilly. We’re too busy with serious talk to be bothered with your nonsense.’
‘A question about society.’
The table went silent. All eyes were on me, even those of Gertrude, who normally was content to stay in her own little world.
I cleared my throat. ‘Um… Does anybody know a Mr Rikkard Ambrose?’
Holding my breath, I waited for an answer. If he was nothing but a simple government official, they wouldn’t know of him. But if not, if he was somebody more important, or rich, or powerful…
Maria laughed a high, nervous laugh, somewhere between hysteria and giggling.
‘Oh Lord, Lilly, you’re so funny. Do you honestly mean to tell us you don't know who Rikkard Ambrose is? I mean, the Rikkard Ambrose?’
Sweet and Solid
‘No,’ I said, suddenly feeling stupid in comparison to my sister Maria for the very first time in my life. I didn’t like the feeling. ‘Have you met him?’
‘Met him?’ Now Anne joined Maria’s laughter. It wasn’t considered polite for a lady to laugh at someone, but when they were in the family circle and I was the subject of their mirth, they frequently seemed to forget that rule. ‘Silly girl! Of course we haven’t met him. No one has been that lucky.’
I have. And be careful about who you call a silly girl.
‘Then how do you know who he is?’ I asked politely, suppressing the urge to chuck a salt shaker at my sister’s head.
Maria rolled her eyes as if this should be obvious.
‘We’ve heard the talk, of course. Half of London has been talking about nothing but him for the last three months, ever since he’s returned from the colonies.’
It must have been the wrong half of London, because I hadn’t heard the talk. I fixed a glare on the twins. They were annoying enough under normal circumstances, but now that they knew something I didn’t, their level of annoyance had passed the point of tolerance.
‘Well, what does the talk say, exactly?’
The twins exchanged a meaningful glance.
‘That he’s tall,’ giggled Anne.
‘That he has eyes as dark as night,’ said Maria, fluttering her eyelashes.
‘I wouldn’t say like the night,’ I mumbled. ‘More like the sea on an overcast day.’
They ignored me.
‘That he’s mysterious,’ continued Anne in the same annoying sing-song. ‘He landed out of the blue a few months ago at the Port of Dover, returned from God only knows where in the biggest ship they’ve ever seen down there, with an army of servants and armed guards, and he started buying up property all over town. Nobody has been able to find out who exactly he is or what he wants, and they haven’t failed for lack of trying. Half of Fleet Street has been after him for weeks, but still nobody knows where he or his fortune came from.’
Fortune? So he was rich, then. Yes, I could see by the longing sparkle in my sisters' eyes that he was. Rich and powerful.
Slowly, I put down my knife. I didn’t feel much like eating, all of a sudden.
‘That he’s secretive and secluded,’ added Maria, the corners of her mouth going down. ‘He’s practically shut himself up in that place he’s had built in Leadenhall Street - almost never comes to any balls or dinners. And if he does, he acts as if the ladies in the room don’t even exist.’
The corners of her mouth went down a little farther, and her delicate white hand tightened into a fist. At any other time, I might have enjoyed speculating about the reasons behind this, but right now I was far too busy. On top of half a bowl of porridge, I now had a big lump of information to digest.
Government official my ass! Mr Rikkard Ambrose was considerably more than an official. Considerably more dangerous. An official had to answer to the government. This man… did he answer to anyone? Again, I remembered how his henchman had hauled off the fat swindler into the mist. For the first time I realized that I had no idea what happened to the fat man. I didn’t even know whether he was still alive.
And then there was the question of which mysterious methods Mr Rikkard Ambrose had employed to acquire the fortune he apparently possessed. Not by inheriting it from a noble ancestor, apparently, which was the approved method for good, upper-class English gentlemen.
‘Um…’ I had to swallow to get rid of the lump in my throat. ‘You mentioned his wealth. How wealthy is he, exactly?’