The Earl of St. Merryn needs a woman. His intentions are purely practical—he simply wants someone sensible and suitably lovely to pose as his betrothed for a few weeks among polite society. He has his own agenda to pursue, and a false fiancée will keep the husband-hunters at bay while he goes about his business. The simplest solution is to hire a paid companion. After all, the sorry women who must accept such employment are sure to be grateful for any favor...
When he encounters Miss Elenora Lodge, he believes his problem is solved. Her dowdy attire and pinned-up hair cannot hide her fine figure and the fire in her golden eyes. And her unfortunate circumstances—and secret dreams of a life onstage—make the Earl’s offer undeniably appealing.
But St. Merryn is clearly hiding something, and things seem oddly amiss in his gloomy Rain Street home. Elenora is soon to discover that his secrets are even darker than his décor—and this lark will be a more dangerous adventure than she’d been led to believe. And Arthur, Earl of St. Merryn, will find that the meek and mild companion he’d envisioned has become both a partner in his quest to catch a killer—and an outspoken belle of the ball who stirs a bothersome passion in his practical heart...
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THE PAID COMPANION
Chapter OneThe ghastly, corpse-pale face appeared suddenly, materializing out of the depths of the fathomless darkness like some demonic guardian set to protect forbidden secrets. The lantern light spilled a hellish glare across the stark, staring face.
The man in the small boat screamed at the sight of the monster, but there was no one to hear him.
His shriek of horror echoed endlessly off the ancient stone walls that enclosed him in a corridor of endless night. His shocked start of surprise affected his balance. He staggered, causing the small boat in which he traveled to bob dangerously on the current of the black waters.
His heart pounded. He was abruptly drenched in a chilling sweat. He stopped breathing.
Reflexively he gripped the long pole he had been using to propel the little craft up the sluggish stream, and fought to steady himself.
Mercifully the end of the pole dug solidly into the riverbed, holding the boat steady as the last reverberations of his dreadful cry died away.
The eerie silence descended once more. He managed to breathe again. He stared at the slightly-larger-than-human-sized head, his hands still shaking.
It was merely another one of the ancient classical statues that lay like so many dismembered bodies here and there along the banks of the underground river. The helmet on this one identified it as a figure of Minerva.
Although it was not the first such statue he had come across in the course of this strange journey, it was certainly the most unnerving. The thing resembled nothing so much as a severed head that had been tossed heedlessly into the mud beside the river.
He shivered again, tightened his grip on the pole and shoved hard. He was annoyed at his reaction to the figure. What was the matter with him? He could not allow his nerves to be so easily unsettled. He had a destiny to fulfill.
The little boat shot forward, slipping past the marble head.
The craft rounded another bend in the river. The lantern light picked out one of the low, arched footbridges that spanned the stream at various points along the way. They were passages to nowhere, ending as they did at the walls of the tunnel that enclosed them. The man ducked slightly to avoid banging his head.
As the last of his terror left him, the surging thrill of excitement returned. It was all just as his predecessor had described in his journal. The lost river truly did exist, twisting beneath the city, a secret waterway that had been covered over and forgotten centuries before.
The author of the journal had concluded that the Romans, never the sort to pass up a potential engineering project, had been the first to enclose the river so that they could contain it and build upon it. One could see the evidence of their masonry work here and there in the lantern light. In other places, the underground tunnel through which the river passed was vaulted in the Medieval style.
The enclosed waters no doubt functioned as an unknown sewer for the great city above it, carrying storm waters and the runoff from drains to the Thames. The smell was foul. It was so silent here in this place of eternal night that he could hear the skittering of rats and other vermin on the narrow banks.
Not much farther now, he thought. If the directions in the journal were correct, he would soon come upon the stone crypt that marked the entrance to his predecessor's secret underground laboratory. He hoped with all his might that he would find the strange machine there, where it had been left all those years before.
The one who had come before him had been forced to abandon the glorious project because he had not been able to unravel the last great riddle in the ancient lapidary. But the man in the boat knew that he had succeeded where his predecessor had failed. He had managed to decode the old alchemist's instructions. He was certain that he could complete the task.
If he was fortunate enough to find the device, there were still many things to be done before it could be made to work. He had yet to locate the missing stones and get rid of the two old men who knew the secrets of the past. But he foresaw no great difficulties in that endeavor.
Information was the key to success, and he knew how to obtain that commodity. He moved in Society, so he had some useful connections in that world. But he also made it a point to spend a great deal of time in the disreputable hells and brothels where the gentlemen of the ton went to seek more unwholesome pleasures. He had found such places to be veritable oceans of rumor and gossip.
There was only one person who knew enough to be able to realize what he intended, but she would not be a problem. Her great weakness was her love for him. He had always been able to use her affection and trust to manipulate her.
No, if he found the device tonight, nothing could stop him from fulfilling his destiny.
They had labeled the one who had come before him a madman and refused to acknowledge his genius. But this time matters would unfold in a very different fashion.
When he had finished constructing the deadly device and demonstrated its enormous destructive energy, all of England, indeed all of Europe would be forced to hail the second Newton in its midst.
Chapter TwoShe won't do. Too timid. Too meek." Arthur watched the door close behind the woman he had just finished interviewing. "I thought I made it clear, I need a lady with spirit and a certain presence. I am not looking for the typical sort of paid companion. Bring in another one."
Mrs. Goodhew exchanged a glance with her business partner, Mrs. Willis. Arthur sensed that they were both nearing the end of their patience. In the course of the past hour and a half he had spoken with seven applicants. None of the subdued, painfully dowdy women on the Goodhew & Willis Agency roster had come close to being a potential candidate for the post he was offering.
He did not blame Mrs. Goodhew and Mrs. Willis for their growing exasperation. But he was beyond being exasperated. He was desperate.
Mrs. Goodhew cleared her throat, folded her large, competent hands on top of her desk and regarded Arthur with a stern air. "My lord, I regret to say that we have exhausted our list of suitable applicants."
"Impossible. There must be someone else." There had to be another candidate. His entire plan hinged on finding the right woman.
Mrs. Goodhew and Mrs. Willis glowered at him from behind their matching desks. They were both formidable females. Mrs. Goodhew was tall and grandly proportioned with a face that could have been stamped on an ancient coin. Her associate was as thin and sharp as a pair of shears.
Both were soberly but expensively attired. There was a judicious amount of gray in their hair and a considerable measure of experience in their eyes.
The sign on the front door outside declared that the Goodhew & Willis Agency had supplied paid companions and governesses to persons of quality for over fifteen years. The fact that these two had established this agency and operated it at an obvious profit for that period of time was a testimony to their intelligence and sound business sense.
Arthur studied their determined expressions and considered his options. Before coming here, he had gone to two other agencies that boasted a selection of ladies seeking work as paid companions. Each had produced a handful of insipid prospects. He had felt a distinct pang of pity for all of them. He understood that only the most dire conditions of genteel poverty could induce any female to seek such a post. But he was not in the market for a woman who aroused the emotion of pity in others.
He clasped his hands behind his back, widened his stance and confronted Mrs. Goodhew and Mrs. Willis from the far side of the room.
"If you have run through all of the suitable candidates," he said, "then the answer is clear. Find me an unsuitable female."
The two stared at him as though he had taken leave of his senses.
Mrs. Willis recovered first. "This is a respectable agency, sir. We do not have any unsuitable females in our files," she said in her razor-edged voice. "Our ladies are all guaranteed to possess reputations that are entirely above reproach. Their references are impeccable."
"Perhaps you would do well to try another agency," Mrs. Goodhew suggested in quelling tones.
"I don't have time to go to another agency." He could not believe that his carefully calculated scheme was about to fall apart simply because he could not find the right female. He had assumed that this would be the simplest, most straightforward part of the plan. Instead, it was proving to be astonishingly complicated. "I told you, I must fill this post immediately-"
The door slammed open behind him with resounding force, effectively putting an end to his sentence.
Together with Mrs. Goodhew and Mrs. Willis, he turned to look at the woman who blew into the office with the force of a small storm off the sea.
He saw at once that she had, possibly by accident although he suspected more likely by design, tried to distract attention from her striking features. A pair of gold-framed spectacles partially veiled her vivid amber-gold eyes. Her glossy, midnight-dark hair was pulled back in a remarkably severe style that would have looked more appropriate on a housekeeper or maid.
She wore a serviceable gown of some heavy, dull material in a peculiarly unattractive shade of gray. The garment looked as though it had been deliberately fashioned to make its wearer appear shorter and heavier than she actually was.
The connoisseurs of the ton and the obnoxious dandies who loitered about on Bond Street ogling the ladies would no doubt have dismissed this woman out of hand. But they were fools who did not know how to look beneath the surface, Arthur thought.
He watched the purposeful yet graceful way in which she moved. There was nothing timid or hesitant about her. Lively intelligence glittered in her exotic eyes. Spirit and determination radiated from her.
In an attempt to maintain his objectivity, he concluded that the lady lacked the sort of smooth, superficial perfection that would have caused the men of the ton to hail her as a diamond of the first water. Nevertheless, there was about her something that drew the eye, an energy and vitality that created an invisible aura. In the right clothes she would not go unnoticed in a ballroom.
"Miss Lodge, please, you cannot go in there." The harried-looking woman who occupied the desk in the outer office hovered uncertainly in the opening. "I told you, Mrs. Goodhew and Mrs. Willis are discussing a very important matter with a client."
"I do not care if they are discussing their wills or their funeral arrangements, Mrs. McNab. I intend to speak with them immediately. I have had quite enough of this nonsense."
Miss Lodge came to a halt in front of the twin desks. Arthur knew that she had not noticed him standing behind her in the shadows. The thick fog outside the windows was, in part, responsible. The mist allowed only a vague, gray light into the office. What little illumination there was did not penetrate far.
Mrs. Willis heaved a long-suffering sigh and assumed an expression that implied she was resigned to some inevitable fate.
Mrs. Goodhew, obviously made of sterner stuff, surged to her feet. "What in heaven's name do you think you are doing interrupting us in this outrageous manner, Miss Lodge?"
"I am correcting what appears to be the mistaken impression that I am seeking a post in the household of a drunkard, or a lecherous rakehell." Miss Lodge narrowed her gaze. "Let us be clear about this. I am in need of an immediate position. I cannot afford to waste any more time interviewing employers who are obviously unacceptable."
"We will discuss this later, Miss Lodge," Mrs. Goodhew snapped.
"We will discuss it now. I have just come from the appointment you arranged for me this afternoon, and I can assure you that I would not take that post if it were the very last position you had to offer."
Mrs. Goodhew smiled with what could only be described as cold triumph. "As it happens, Miss Lodge, it is, indeed, the very last post that this agency intends to make available to you."
Miss Lodge frowned. "Don't be absurd. As annoying as this process is for all concerned and most especially for me, I fear we must press on."
Mrs. Goodhew and Mrs. Willis exchanged glances. Mrs. Goodhew turned back to Miss Lodge.
"On the contrary," she said icily. "I see no point in sending you out on even one more interview."
"Haven't you been paying attention, Mrs. Goodhew?" Miss Lodge snapped. "I told you, I am in need of a new position immediately. My current employer will be leaving town the day after tomorrow to join her friend in the country. She has graciously consented to allow me to stay with her until she departs, but after that I will be obliged to find new lodgings. Lodgings which, due to the extremely poor wages I have been paid for the past few months, I cannot afford at the moment."
Mrs. Willis shook her head with what appeared to be sincere regret. "We have done our best to secure another post for you, Miss Lodge. You have had five interviews with five different clients in the past three days, but you have failed at each attempt."
"I am not the one who failed those interviews. The prospective employers failed them." Miss Lodge raised one gloved hand and began to tick off her fingers as she continued. "Mrs. Tibbett was well into her cups when I arrived, and she continued to nip at her bottle of gin until she toppled over and fell sound asleep on the sofa. Why she seeks a paid companion is beyond me. She was unable to carry on a coherent conversation."
"That is quite enough, Miss Lodge," Mrs. Goodhew said through set teeth.
"Mrs. Oxby said nothing during the entire interview. Instead she allowed her son to conduct the proceedings." Miss Lodge shuddered. "It was obvious that he is one of those dreadful men who inflicts himself upon the weak and helpless females in his own household. The situation was impossible. I have no intention of living under the same roof with such a despicable man."
"Miss Lodge, if you please." Mrs. Goodhew seized a paperweight and thumped the top of her desk.
Miss Lodge ignored her. "And then there was Mrs. Stanbridge, who was so ill that she was forced to conduct the interview from her bed. It was clear to me that she will not survive the fortnight. Her relatives are dealing with her affairs. They cannot wait for her to cock up her toes so that they can get their hands on her money. I could see immediately that it would have been highly unlikely that I would have been able to collect my fees from them."
Mrs. Goodhew drew herself up to her full height and bristled.
Excerpted from THE PAID COMPANION by Amanda Quick Copyright © 2004 by Jayne Ann Krentz. Excerpted by permission.
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