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Mrs Killinghurst's register office was well known as the saviour of many a gently bred young lady who had fallen upon hard times and needed to earn a living. Mrs Killinghurst specialised in finding employment for such young ladies as companions, governesses or even seamstresses, depending upon their accomplishments. Her offices occupied a suite of rooms above a hatter's shop in Bond Street, and young ladies wishful of finding employment could slip along the narrow alley beside the shop and through the freshly painted doorway with its discreet brass plate.
Miss Lucy Halbrook had already made one visit to Mrs Killinghurst's establishment and now, a fortnight later, she was returning to the office, as instructed by the proprietress herself, with high hopes of obtaining the gainful employment she so desperately needed. When her father had died twelve months ago Lucy had been prepared for life to change for herself and Mama, but it was only after the funeral that Lucy discovered just how poor they really were. They had been taken in by Mrs Halbrook's invalid sister, but Lucy soon realised that although Mama had found a niche as nurse-companion to Mrs Edgeworth, she herself was constantly harassed by Mr Edgeworth. Lucy had always thought it a little odd that the female servants in her aunt's house were all rather mature, but within days of moving in she knew the reason for it. She had so far managed to evade her uncle's lascivious attentions but she must find somewhere else to live, and soon. If she was honest with herself, she also wanted a little more independence. Her father's death had been painful, but her mother's sudden revelation that they were penniless had been even harder to bear. They had never been rich, and it was not just their poverty, but the knowledge that Mama had kept the situation from her. And what of her father, a man she had adored? To find that he was not the hero she had thought him was a severe blow. If only they had told her. After all, it was not as if she was a child. Surely they could have trusted her with the truth when she reached her majority, three years ago? She might even have been able to help. By finding employment, for example, as she was doing now.
Lucy hurried along New Bond Street, dodging between the crowds of fashionable ladies and gentlemen who were taking advantage of the mild spring weather to stroll along, giving more attention to the shop windows than to where they were going. At last she reached the hatter's and stepped quickly into the alley. It was darker than she had expected and it took her a moment to realise this was because someone was standing at the far end, blocking the light.
Her step faltered, but she pressed on. After all, Mrs Killinghurst was expecting her and she was not to be put off. She might wish she had worn a veil, but since there was no help for it, Lucy continued towards the door. The manfor it was undoubtedly a manhad apparently just emerged from Mrs Killinghurst's door, so he was either looking for work or for someone to employ. The latter, she thought as her eyes grew accustomed to the shadows and she took in at a glance his coat of blue superfine, buckskin breeches and black boots. In fact, he might well have purchased his coat from Mr Weston's hallowed portals in nearby Old Bond Street, for it fitted him perfectly with never a wrinkle to mar its elegance. His boots, too, shone with a smooth, highly polished gloss. The buckskins may well have been similarly free of creases, but Lucy had felt a frisson of something she did not quite understand when she had first observed the man and now she dared not let her eyes dwell on those muscular limbs.
Instead, she kept her head up, chin defiantly raised. She would not stare at the ground like some humble, subservient creature. Consequently she could not avoid at least one quick glance at the man's face. It was rugged rather than handsome, black-browed and with a deep cleft in his chin. There was a latent strength about him that sat oddly with his fashionable dressclearly he was no Bond Street Beau. Whatever his status, Lucy's main concern was that he was blocking her way. His curly-brimmed hat almost brushed the roof of the alley and his broad shoulders filled the narrow space.
She observed all this in the time it took her to cover the short distance between them, and it struck her in the same instant that he was the most solid and immovable object she had ever encountered. She stopped, but refused to be intimidated and returned his direct gaze with a steady look. His grey eyes were curiously compelling and again she felt that tremor run through her. An odd, unfamiliar mixture of excitement and attraction that had her wanting to know more about this man and at the same time to turn around and run for her life.
Lucy quelled such feelings immediately. She was not the sort to run away from a problemnot that there had ever been many problems in her life until now. She realised a little sadly that her parents had protected her from the harsher realities of life. Perhaps a little too much. But all that was at an end. She must now stand up for herself and that meant not being intimidated by this solid wall of man standing in her way. She wondered if she was going to have to ask him to move, but at that moment he stepped back, pushing the door open with one hand.
Silently, Lucy sailed past him and up the stairs. She had the uncomfortable sensation that he was watching her ascent, for her spine tingled uncomfortably, but when she reached the landing and looked back there was no one below and the door was firmly shut.
An iron-haired woman was guarding the small reception room at the top of the stairs. She showed Lucy into Mrs Killinghurst's office, invited her to remove her cloak and bonnet and sit down, then she shut the door upon her. Left alone, Lucy folded her cloak neatly and laid it on a chair then carefully placed her bonnet on top. There was no mirror in the room, so she could only put her hands up to make sure her soft brown hair was still neatly confined in a knot at the back of her head. She had put on the same high-necked gown she had worn for her first interview, a plain closed robe of pewter-coloured wool, and hoped she portrayed the modest, unassuming character that an employer would be looking for.
After a few moments alone, Lucy became prey to uncertainty. She thought over her previous visit, wondering if she had perhaps mistaken the day.
No, she had been sitting on this very chair, facing Mrs Killinghurst across the desk, exactly two weeks ago. Lucy had been encouraged by the lady's businesslike air, and once she had explained her circumstances and answered a number of searching questions, the lady had risen and disappeared through a door at the back of the room. Some personal inner sanctum, thought Lucy, for she had glimpsed the carved and gilded edge of a picture frame. This had surprised her a little, for the walls of the office and the reception room were singularly bare of ornament, and Lucy had been puzzling over this when Mrs Killinghurst had returned, saying that, yes, she did think there was a suitable position for Lucy.
'It is rather an unusual position but perfectly respectable, I assure you, and the remuneration is extremely generous, considering that it is only a temporary position. You will only be required for a short periodpart of May and the whole of June. However, I need to ascertain from my clientthat isyou will need to come back. Shall we say two weeks from today, at eleven o'clock?'
Lucy had agreed immediately. Another two weeks in her uncle's house would be a trial, but she would manage, somehow. The date and time of the next meeting had been repeated and confirmed, Lucy remembered, with Mrs Killinghurst promising that she would then be in a position to explain the post in detail. Lucy had thanked her and prepared to leave, but now she recalled that at that point the proprietress had shown a diffidence that had not been apparent throughout the rest of their meeting.
'Good day to you, Miss Halbrook andmy dear, should you find another post in the meantime I hope you will feel free to take it. A little note to me explaining the situation will suffice '
Lucy had looked at her in surprise.
'I assure you, Mrs Killinghurst, I am more than content to wait two weeks, unless perhaps you think there is some doubt about my suitability for the post you have in mind?'
'Oh, no, no, I think you are eminently suitable.' Thinking back, Lucy remembered the slightly anxious timbre of the lady's voice, as if she regretted the circumstance. She had looked a little uncomfortable as she continued, 'Of course, this post is by no means guaranteed, and if something else should come up I would be failing you if I did not advise you to accept it.'
'But you do not have anything else to offer me?'
'Well, no, not at present.'
Lucy had thought it an odd way to go about business, suggesting that she should look elsewhere for employment, but she guessed it was some sort of a test of her loyalty, and she had been quick to reassure Mrs Killinghurst that she would return in two weeks' time at the agreed hour.
'And here I am,' she announced to the empty room. 'Ready and waiting to know my fate.'
The rattle of the doorknob made her jump, and she wondered if someone had been listening, for at that moment the door to the inner sanctum opened, and Mrs Killinghurst came in, smiling and apologising for keeping Lucy waiting. She went to her desk and in her haste left the door slightly ajar.
'Now then, Miss Halbrook, where were we?' She sat down, pulling a sheaf of papers towards her. 'Ah, yes. The character references I have received for you are excellent. As I mentioned when we last met, this is an unusual post. My client is looking for an accomplished young lady of gentle birth to spend some time at his house in the north.'
A movement from Lucy caused the lady to pause.
'Excuse me, ma'am, but your client is a married gentleman, I assume?'
Mrs Killinghurst shook her head.
'He is a widower, but quite respectable,' she added quickly, a little too hastily perhaps.
Lucy felt her heart sinking. She decided she must speak frankly.
'Mrs Killinghurst, isis there anything, ah, questionable about this particular post?'
'Oh, no, no, nothing like that! My client assures me that a chaperone will be provided, and you will be treated with the utmost respect during your stay. You are to live at the house, as his guest. And the remuneration is extremely generous.'
She mentioned a sum that made Lucy's eyebrows fly up.
'But I do not understand. Your, ah, client wishes to pay me to be a guest in his house?'
Mrs Killinghurst began to straighten the papers on her desk.
'I believe he wishes you to be there as his hostess.'
Lucy's disappointment was searing. For the past two weeks she had been looking forward to this meeting, speculating about the 'lucrative post' that Mrs Killing-hurst had in mind. A governess, perhaps, or companion to some elderly and infirm lady, or even a gentleman. The temporary nature of the post had indicated that perhaps she was being engaged to make someone's last months on this earth as comfortable as possible. Now she realised that her daydreams and speculation had been wildly inaccurate and naive. An unmarried maneven a widowerwould not hire a hostess for any respectable purpose.
Thoughts of Uncle Edgeworth and his wandering hands came to her mind.
She rose, saying coldly, 'I am very sorry, Mrs Killinghurst, but this is not the kind of employment I envisaged. If you had only told me a little more about this post two weeks ago we might have saved ourselves a great deal of inconvenience.'
She had already turned to leave when she was halted by the sound of a deep, male voice behind her.
'Perhaps, Mrs Killinghurst, you would allow me to explain to the young lady?'
Lucy whipped around. Standing in the doorway to the inner sanctum was the man she had seen below.
His solid form had filled the alleyway, but here in this small office he looked even more imposing. Mrs Killinghurst rose from her seat, but she barely reached his shoulder and only emphasised the man's size. He had removed his hat to display his black hair, cut ruthlessly short, and his impassive countenance did nothing to dispel Lucy's first impression of a stern, unyielding character.
She was aware of the latent power of the man. It was apparent in every line of his body, from the rough-hewn countenance, through those broad shoulders to his feet, planted firmly, slightly apart, as if he was ready to take on the world.
Ready to pounce on her. This man was dangerous, she was convinced of it, but some tiny, treacherous part of her found that danger very attractive.
Alarmed by her own reaction Lucy stepped back, one hand behind her feeling for the door handle.
'I really do not think there is any need'
'Oh, but there is,' he said. 'You've waited two weeks to learn about this position; it would be a pity if you were to leave now without knowing just what it entailed, don't you think?' He spoke quietly, but with a natural authority that brooked no argument and when he invited her to return to her seat, Lucy found herself complying.
He indicated to Mrs Killinghurst that she should sit down and while the lady was settling herself Lucy made a mental note that if this stranger should try to get between her and the door to the reception area she would flee, however foolish and cowardly that might appear. Thankfully, though, the gentleman contented himself with moving to one side of the room where both ladies could see him. He nodded to Mrs Killinghurst.
'Perhaps, ma'am, you would be good enough to introduce me.'
'Yes, yes, of course. Miss Halbrook, this is Lord Ad-versane, my client.'
He bowed to Lucy, who was surprised at the elegance with which he performed this courtesy. For such a large man he had the lithe grace of a natural athlete. She inclined her head in acknowledgement, but remained silent, waiting to hear what he had to say.
'Mrs Killinghurst has told you that I am in need of your services for my house in Yorkshire,' he began. 'Ad-versane is the largest estate and the most prominent house in the area. Since the death of my wife, I have lived there very quietly, but you will appreciate that this has had an adverse effect upon the neighbourhood since I am not employing so many staff, nor is the housekeeper ordering so much from the local tradesmen. I think it is time to open up the house again and invite guestsfamily and friendsto join me there. However, I require a hostess.'
Lucy nodded. 'I understand that, my lord, but surely there is some lady within your family who would be more than willing to fulfil that role.'