“A Lady requires the Services of a GENTLEMAN of the Utmost Discretion over the Christmas period…”
A novella in the collection Convenient Christmas Brides
Drew Stanton has inherited the title of Viscount Ravencroft – and not much else. He needs money to tide him over and a roof over his head for Christmas. He answers an advertisement and finds himself masquerading as Miss Ellie Jordan’s fiancé. Christmas with a respectable household wasn’t quite what he’d been expecting when he answered the advertisement – and the attraction between himself and Ellie is definitely perilous for a man in need of an aristocratic wife and a lady who is very wary of fortune hunters.
The truth of his identity puts their growing love in peril – can the magic of Christmas heal the rift?
‘ “A Lady requires the Services of a GENTLEMAN of the Utmost Discretion over the Christmas period. Full board and lodging for the Festive Season and Remuneration Fully Commensurate with the DELICACY of the Task and the Degree of SENSITIVITY required. Apply in person to Templeton, Ague and Ague, Old Mitre Court, Middle Temple, between the hours of ten and four.” Delicacy, sensitivity and discretion, indeed. I wonder what the lady in question requires and what payment is fully commensurate with that.’ Payment. He could do discretion. Sensitivity at a pinch. He wasn’t too sure about delicacy.
Jack snorted. ‘Easy enough. It can only be one of two things. A lady wants to present her husband with an heir because he isn’t capable of fathering one, or a lady wants to experience the joys of the marriage bed without benefit of clergy.’
‘And approaches it by advertising through a solicitor? Surely not.’
‘You’d be surprised,’ Jack said darkly. ‘Those lawyers will do anything for a price. You aren’t still fretting about money, are you? Damn it, if you’d only borrow what you need – . All right, have it your own way, you stiff-rumped idiot,’ he said with a grin when Drew shook his head. ‘I’ll bet twenty guineas against your Manton pocket pistol that you won’t answer that advertisement, in person, tomorrow – and take the job if it is offered.’
Drew rolled up the newspaper, lifted it in mock threat, then lowered it again. What harm could a simple enquiry do? And, besides, he wasn’t convinced by Jack’s glib explanations. It was a mystery and he enjoyed a mystery. Twenty guineas won fair and square was a different matter entirely from a loan. ‘Done, I’ll take your wager.’
‘I do not like to say I told you so, Miss Jordan, but every man – I will not say gentleman – who has passed through these doors in the past two days has come with the basest of motives.’ Mr Ague, junior – Mr Templeton had long been gathered to his rest and Mr Ague senior (eighty six and irascible with gout) had refused to have anything to do with the matter – drew a line through the latest applicant. He pulled his spectacles off his nose and tossed them onto the desk with the air of a man throwing in his hand.
Ellie peered through the fine mesh of her veil at the list in front of the solicitor and shuddered faintly. She had thought she was unshockable, worldly-wise. It was clear that she was not, as the heat in her cheeks testified. ‘I do not know how else I could have worded the advertisement, not without revealing the exact purpose and that would be self-defeating. Are there no more applicants?’
Mr Ague rang the bell on his desk and his clerk came through from the outer office. ‘Just one more, sir. In uniform. A Captain Pearce.’
‘Give us two minutes and show him in. The name has novelty, at least. Not one of the Smith or Jones clans.’ Mr Ague gave a high-pitched titter as Ellie moved back to her chair in the shadowed corner. Her spirits were sinking along with the light-levels.
Outside it was barely two o’clock, but a smoggy winter gloom was descending over the narrow courts of the Middle Temple and all the light in the room was concentrated around the desk, the better to conceal her in the shadows. The only bright spot was the incongruous sprig of holly sitting in an empty inkwell on the desk, its berries glowing. And even that reminded her how close Christmas was and how desperate she was becoming.
‘Captain Pearce, sir.’
Well. Goodness. Ellie blinked as the tall figure moved into the pool of lamplight around the desk. He seemed to bring cold air with him, a swirl of fog. And, paradoxically, heat. Or perhaps intensity. Masculinity, certainly.
‘Please sit down, Captain.’ Mr Ague put on his spectacles again. ‘You are an army officer, I see. Why do you wish to apply for this position?’
‘I am a half-pay officer. The fully commensurate remuneration is, naturally, a consideration. I also have to confess to curiosity.’