Authors: Amanda Quick
Tags: #Fiction, #Historical
Arthur Lancaster, Earl of St. Merryn, was sitting in front of a crackling fire in his club, drinking a glass of excellent port and reading a newspaper, when he received word that his fiancée had eloped with another man.
“I’m told young Burnley used a ladder to climb up to her window and assist Miss Juliana down to the carriage.” Bennett Fleming lowered his short, sturdy frame into the chair across from Arthur and reached for the bottle of port. “They are headed north, by all accounts. No doubt making for Gretna Green. Juliana’s father has just set out after them, but his coach is old and slow.”
A great hush fell upon the room. All talk stopped. No papers rustled; no glasses moved. It was almost
and the club was full. Every man in the vicinity appeared to be frozen in his chair as he strained mightily to eavesdrop on the conversation taking place in front of the fire.
With a sigh, Arthur folded his newspaper, set it aside and took a swallow of his port. He looked toward the window where wind driven rain beat furiously against the glass panes.
“They’ll be fortunate to get ten miles in this storm,” he said.
As was the case with every other word he spoke that night, the remark became part of the St. Merryn legend… So
cold-blooded that when he was told that his fiancée had run off with another man, he merely commented upon the damp weather.
Bennett hastily downed some of his port and then followed Arthur’s gaze to the window. “Young Burnley and Miss Juliana have an excellent, well-sprung carriage and a strong, fresh team.” He cleared his throat. “It is doubtful that the lady’s father will catch them, but a single man mounted on a good horse might be able to overtake the pair.”
Expectation seethed in the crystalline silence. St. Merryn was indisputably a single man, and it was no secret that his stable housed some extremely prime horseflesh. Everyone waited to see if the earl would elect to pursue the fleeing couple.
Arthur got to his feet in a leisurely manner and picked up the half-empty bottle of port. “Do you know, Bennett, I seem to find myself suffering from the most extreme case of boredom this evening. I believe I will go see if there is anything of interest happening in the card room.”
Bennett’s brows shot up toward his receding hairline. “You never gamble. I can’t even begin to count the number of times that I have heard you claim that it is illogical to wager money on a roll of the dice or a hand of cards.”
“I am feeling unusually lucky tonight.” Arthur started toward the card room.
“Devil take it,” Bennett muttered. Homely features creased in alarm, he climbed to his feet, seized his half-finished glass of port and scrambled to catch up with the earl.
“Do you know,” Arthur said midway across the unnaturally silent room, “it occurs to me that I miscalculated rather badly when I asked Graham for his daughter’s hand in marriage.”
“Indeed?” Bennett slanted Arthur an uneasy glance, as though examining his companion for indications of a fever.
“Yes. I believe that the next time I set out to find myself a wife, I will approach the project in a more logical manner, just as I would one of my investments.”
Bennett grimaced, aware that their audience was still paying rapt attention to everything Arthur said. “How in blazes do you intend to apply logic to the business of finding a wife?”
“It occurs to me that the qualities that one requires in a wife are not unlike those one would expect in a paid companion.”
Bennett sputtered and coughed on a mouthful of port. “A
“Only consider the matter closely.” There was a clink as Arthur tilted the port bottle over his glass. “The ideal companion is a well-bred and well-educated lady possessed of a sterling reputation, steady nerves, and a meek and modest manner in both her actions and her dress. Are those not the exact specifications one would set down if one were to describe the perfect wife?”
“A paid companion is, by definition, impoverished and alone in the world.”
“Of course she is poor and without resources.” Arthur shrugged. “Why else would she apply for such a humble post?”
“Most gentlemen would prefer a wife who can bring them a fortune or some property,” Bennett pointed out.
“Al, but that is where I have a great advantage, is it not?” Arthur paused at the door of the card room and surveyed the busy tables. “Not to put too fine a point on it, I am filthy rich and getting richer by the day. I do not require a wealthy wife.”
Bennett halted beside him and reluctantly conceded the point. “True.”
“One of the great things about paid companions is their condition of dire poverty,” Arthur continued. “It makes them suitably grateful for whatever employment is offered, you see.”
“Huh. Hadn’t thought of that.” Bennett swallowed more port and slowly lowered the glass. “I think I am beginning to follow your reasoning.”
“Unlike sheltered, romantic young ladies whose views of love have been sadly warped by Byron and the novels of the Minerva Press, paid companions must, of necessity, be a far more practical lot. They have learned the hard way just how harsh the world can be.”
“It follows, then, that your typical companion would not be inclined toward behavior that would cost her to lose her post. A man could expect, for example, that such a lady would not run off with another man shortly before the wedding.”
“Perhaps it is the port, but I believe you are making excellent sense.” Bennett frowned. “But just how would one go about finding a wife with all the qualities of a paid companion?”
“Fleming, you disappoint me. The answer to that question is glaringly obvious. If one wished to choose such a paragon of a wife, one would naturally go to an agency that supplies companions. One would interview an assortment of applicants and then make one’s selection.”
Bennett blinked. “An agency?”
“How could a man go wrong?” Arthur nodded to himself “I should have thought of the idea a few months ago. Just think of all the trouble I would have avoided.”
“If you will excuse me, I believe there is an opening for a player at that table in the corner.”
“The play will be deep,” Bennett warned. “Are you quite certain-”
But Arthur was no longer paying attention. He crossed the room and sat down at the card table.
When he got to his feet a few hours later, he was several thousand pounds richer. The fact that the earl had broken his own ironclad rule against placing wagers and proceeded to win a sizeable sum that night added yet another facet to the St. Merryn legend.
The first light of a gray, drizzly dawn was just beginning to show above the rooftops when Arthur left his club. He got into the waiting carriage and allowed himself to be driven back to the big, gloom-filled house in
At nine-thirty the next morning he was awakened by his elderly butler, who informed him that his fiancée’s father had found his daughter at an inn where she was sharing a room with her handsome young rescuer.
There was, of course, only one thing to be done in order to preserve the lady’s reputation. The outraged papa had decreed that the couple would be wed immediately by special license.
Arthur thanked the servant politely for the news, turned over and went immediately back to sleep.
The news of her stepfather’s death was delivered to Elenora Lodge by the two men to whom he had lost everything in a poor business investment. They arrived on her doorstep at
in the afternoon.
“Samuel Jones dropped dead of a fit of apoplexy when he found out that the mining scheme had failed,” one of the men from London informed her with no sign of sympathy.
“This house, its contents and the land that adjoins it from here to the stream all belong to us now” the second creditor announced, waving a sheaf of papers that carried Samuel Jones’s signature on every page.
The first man squinted at the small gold ring Elenora wore on her little finger. “The deceased included your jewelry and all personal possessions, with the exception of your clothing, on the list of goods he put up as collateral for the loan.”
The second creditor jerked a thumb to indicate the very large individual who stood slightly behind and to the side. “This is Mr. Hitchins. We hired him from
The hulking, gray-haired man who had accompanied Samuel Jones’s creditors had hard, watchful eyes. He carried the Bow Street Runner’s badge of office: a baton.
Elenora faced the three aggressive-looking men, aware of her housekeeper and maid hovering anxiously in the front hall behind her. Her thoughts flew to the stable lads and the men who tended the gardens and the home farm. She knew full well that there was very little she could do to protect them. Her only hope was to make it sound as though it would be foolish to dismiss the staff
“I assume you realize that this property produces a very comfortable income,” she said.
“Aye, Miss Lodge.” The first creditor rocked on his heels, well pleased. “Samuel Jones made that clear, right enough.”
The second man surveyed the neatly kept grounds with an air of anticipation. “A very handsome farm it is.”
“Then you will also be aware that the only reason the property is valuable is because the people who work the land and maintain the household are highly skilled individuals. It would be impossible to replace them. If you let any of them go, I can promise you that the crops will fail and the house will decline in value within months.”
The two creditors frowned at each other. Obviously neither of them had considered the problem of the servants and laborers.
The Runner’s grizzled brows climbed at that announcement and an odd expression lit his eyes. But he said nothing. Why would he? she thought. The business end of this matter had nothing to do with him.
The two creditors reached a silent accord. The first one cleared his throat.
“Your staff will stay on,” he said. “We’ve already arranged for the sale of the property, and the new owner made it clear that he wants everything to stay just as it is.”
“With the exception of yourself, of course, Miss Lodge.” The second creditor bobbed his head with a wise air. “The new owner won’t be needing you.”
Some of Elenora’s tension eased. The people who worked for her were safe. She could turn her attention to her own future.
“I assume you will allow me time to pack my clothes,” she said coldly.
Neither of the two creditors appeared to hear the acute disdain that laced her tones. One of them hauled a watch out of his pocket.
“You have thirty minutes, Miss Lodge.” He nodded at the big man from
Elenora turned with as much dignity as she could muster and found herself confronted with her sobbing housekeeper and the distraught maid.
Her own head was whirling in the face of the disaster, but she knew that she had to maintain her composure in front of these two. She gave them both what she hoped was a reassuring smile.
“Calm yourselves,” she said briskly. “As you just heard, you are to remain in your posts, and the men will keep their positions as well.”
The housekeeper and the maid stopped crying and lowered their handkerchiefs. Both went limp with relief
“Thank you, Miss Elenora,” the housekeeper whispered.
Elenora patted her shoulder and hastened toward the stairs. She tried to ignore the mean-looking Runner who stalked behind her every step of the way.
Hitchins stood just inside the opening of her bedchamber, hands clasped behind his back, feet braced, and watched as she hauled a large trunk out from under the bed.
She wondered what he would say if she were to inform him that he was the only man who had ever set foot in her bedchamber.
“This was my grandmother’s traveling trunk,” she told him instead, throwing open the lid to reveal the empty interior. “She was an actress. Her stage name was Agatha Knight. ‘When she married my grandfather, there was a terrible uproar in the family. Such a scandal. My great-grandparents threatened to disown my grandfather. But in the end they were forced to accept the situation. You know how it is with families.”
Hitchins grunted. Either he did not have any experience with a family or else he found her personal history extremely dull. She suspected the latter.
In spite of Hitchins’s lack of conversation, she continued to chatter nonstop while she dragged her clothes out of the ward robe. Her goal was to distract him. She did not want him to become curious about the old trunk.
“My poor mother was mortified by the fact that her mother had gone on stage. She spent her entire life trying to live down Grandmother’s notorious career.”
Hitchins checked his watch. “Ye’ve got ten minutes left.”
“Thank you, Mr. Hitchins.” She gave him a steely smile. “You’re being very helpful.”
The Runner proved to be inured to sarcasm. He no doubt experienced a lot of it in his profession.
Elenora yanked open a drawer and took out a pile of neatly folded linen. “You might want to avert your eyes, sir.”
Hitchins had the grace not to stare at her chemise and nightgown. But when she reached for the small clock on the bedside table, his thin mouth tightened.
“Ye’re not to take anything except your personal clothing, Miss Lodge,” he said, shaking his head.
“Yes, of course.” So much for sneaking in the clock. Pity. It might have been worth a few pounds to a pawn dealer. “How could I have forgotten?”
She slammed the lid down and locked it quickly, a chill of relief shooting down her spine. The Runner had not shown the least bit of interest in her grandmother’s old theater trunk.