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"I do not see how Marcle could possibly have imagined you to be qualified for this post," she said.
Baxter had had enough of arguing the point. "It is not as if there are a great many men about who can meet your absurd requirements, Miss Arkendale."
She glowered. "But surely Mr. Marcle can find me a gentleman who is more suited to the position than yourself."
"Have you forgotten? Marcle is halfway to Devon. Would you mind telling me precisely what it is about me that is so unsuitable?"
"Other than your lack of skill with a pistol?" she asked much too sweetly.
"Yes, other than that failing."
"You force me to be rude, sir. The problem is your appearance."
"What the devil is wrong with my appearance? No one could be more unprepossessing than myself."
Charlotte scowled. "Do not feed me that Banbury tale. You most certainly are not a potato pudding. Just the opposite, in fact."
He stared at her. "I beg your pardon?"
"You must know very well, sir, that your spectacles are a poor disguise."
"Disguise?" He wondered if he had got the wrong address and the wrong Charlotte Arkendale. Perhaps he had got the wrong town. "What in the name of the devil do you believe me to be concealing?"
"Surely you are not suffering from the illusion that those spectacles mask your true nature."
"My true nature?" Baxter lost his grip on his patience. "Bloody hell, just what am I, if not innocuous and unprepossessing?"
She spread her hands wide. "You have the look of a man of strong passions who has mastered his temperament with even stronger powers of self-control."
"I beg your pardon?"
Her eyes narrowed with grim determination. "Such a man cannot hope to go about unnoticed. You are bound to attract attention when you conduct business on my behalf. I cannot have that in my man-of-affairs. I require someone who can disappear into a crowd. Someone whose face no one recalls very clearly. Don't you understand, sir? You give the appearance of being rather, well, to be quite blunt, dangerous."
Baxter was bereft of words.
Charlotte clasped her hands behind her back and resumed her pacing. "It is quite obvious you will never be able to pass for a dull, ordinary man-of-affairs. Therefore, you must see that you would not do at all for my purposes."
Baxter realized his mouth was hanging open. He managed to get it closed. He had been called many things, bastard, ill-mannered, and a great bore being among the more common epithets. But no one had ever labeled him a man of strong passions. No one had ever claimed that he looked dangerous.
He was a man of science. He prided himself on his detached, unemotional approach to problems, people, and situations. It was a trait he had honed to perfection years ago when he discovered that, as the bastard son of the Earl of Esherton and the notorious Emma, Lady Sultenham, he would be forever excluded from his rightful heritage.
He had been a subject of speculation and gossip since the day he was born. He had learned early to seek refuge amid his books and scientific apparatus.
Although some women initially found the notion of an affair with the bastard son of an earl somewhat exciting, especially when they learned that he was a very wealthy bastard son, the sentiment did not last long. The weak flames generated in the course of his infrequent liaisons burned for only a very short time before sputtering out.
His affairs had become even shorter in duration since his return from Italy three years ago. The acid burns on his back and shoulders had healed but he was marked for life.
Women reacted to the raw, ugly scars with shock and disgust. Baxter did not entirely blame them. He had never been handsome and the acid lacerations had done nothing to improve his looks. Fortunately, his face had been spared. He was, however, fed up with the inconvenience of having to make certain that the candles were snuffed and the fire banked before he got undressed and climbed into bed with a lady.
On the last such occasion, some six months ago, he had nearly brained himself on the bedpost when he had tripped over his own boot in the inky darkness of the widow's unlit bedchamber. The incident had put a distinct damper on the remainder of the evening.
For the most part, he sought his satisfactions and pleasures in his laboratory. There, surrounded by his gleaming beakers, flasks, retorts, and blowpipes, he could avoid the empty conversations and frivolous pursuits of the Polite World. It was a world he had never enjoyed. A world that did not begin to comprehend him. A world that he found excruciatingly superficial and insipid. A world in which he had never felt at home.
Baxter schooled his thoughts and forced himself to reason swiftly. Charlotte had plainly dismissed him as a possible man-of-affairs. A new approach was required if he was to convince her to employ him.
"Miss Arkendale, there seems to be some discrepancy between your view of my nature and the views of virtually everyone else in the world. May I suggest we resolve the matter by conducting an experiment?"
She went very still. "What sort of experiment?"
"I recommend that you summon the members of your household and ask them for their opinions. If the consensus is that I can successfully go about my duties unnoticed and unremarked, you will employ me. If they concur with your views, I shall take my leave and look elsewhere for a post."
She hesitated, clearly dubious. Then she gave a quick, decisive nod. "Very well, sir. That seems quite logical. We shall conduct the experiment at once. I shall summon my sister and housekeeper. They are both extremely observant."
She reached for the velvet bell pull that hung beside the fireplace and gave it a strong tug.
"You agree to abide by the results of this test?" he asked warily.
"You have my word on it, sir." She smiled with ill-concealed triumph. "We shall settle the matter at once."
Footsteps sounded in the hall. Baxter adjusted his eyeglasses and sat back in his chair to await the outcome of the experiment.
He was certain that he could safely predict the results. He knew his strong points better than anyone else. No one could top him when it came to appearing as bland and uninteresting as a potato pudding.
Twenty minutes later, Baxter went down the steps of the Arkendale town house with a sense of quiet exultation. He noted that the crisp March breeze, which had been decidedly chilly an hour earlier, now felt fresh and invigorating.
There was nothing quite like a properly conducted scientific experiment to settle things, he thought as he hailed a passing hackney. It had not been easy but he had finally secured his new post. As he had anticipated, Charlotte Arkendale was the only person in the small household, indeed, very likely the only person in the whole of London, who would ever notice him in a crowd.
He was not sure what her peculiar notions concerning his nature said about her except that they definitely verified John Marcle's opinion. Charlotte was a very unique sort of female.
Not at all what one would expect in the way of a blackmailer and murderess, Baxter thought.