London, May 1818
The house that was her destination was located on Upper Wimpole Street, on the very edge of what was considered to be respectable London. The woman known as The Procurer stepped down lightly from her barouche, ordering her coachman to wait until she had successfully secured entry, then to return for her in an hour. An hour, The Procurer knew from experience, was more than sufficient time to conclude her unique business. One way or another.
Number Fourteen was situated at the far end of the terrace. A shallow flight of steps led to the front door, but the entrance to the basement she sought was around the corner, on Devonshire Street. The Procurer descended the steep stairs cautiously. Despite the bright sunshine of the late spring morning, it was cool down here, dank and gloomy. The curtains were pulled tight over the single, dirty window. A fleck of paint fell from the door when she let the rusty knocker fall.
There was no reply. She rapped again, her eyes on the window, and was rewarded with the ripple of a curtain as the person behind it tried to peer out at her unobserved. She stood calmly, allowing herself to be surveyed, sadly accustomed to the reticence of the women she sought out to welcome unsolicited visitors. The reasons were manifold, but fear lay at the root of all of them.
The Procurer offered an escape route from their tribulations to those women whose particular skills or traits suited her current requirements. The exclusive temporary contracts she offered provided those who satisfied her criteria with the funds to make a fresh start, though what form that would take was always entirely up to them. The unique business she had established was very lucrative and satisfying too, on the whole, though there were occasions when The Procurer despaired of the tiny impact her altruism had, when set against the myriad injustices the world perpetrated against women. Today, however, she was in a positive mood. A new client, another extraordinary request to test her reputation for making the impossible possible. She had heard of Lady Sophia Acton’s spectacular fall from grace and had wondered, at the time, what had been the cause of it. Now, thanks to her spider’s web of contacts, she understood only too well. Her heart was touched – as much as that frozen organ could be, that is.
The Procurer gave a little nod to herself. She could not, she thought wryly, have designed a more appropriate task for the woman if she tried. Who had by now, she judged, had more than sufficient time to decide that her visitor was neither her landlady come to evict her, nor a lady of another sort come to harass her. It was time for Lady Sophia Acton to come out of hiding and return to the world. Albeit a very different one from that which she had previously inhabited.
The Procurer rapped on the door again, and this time her patience was eventually rewarded, as she had known it would be. The woman who answered was tall and willowy, dressed in an outmoded gown of faded worsted which may originally have been either grey, blue or brown, and which was far too warm for the season. Her silver-blonde hair was fixed in a careless knot on top of her head from which long, wispy tendrils had escaped, framing her heart-shaped face. The wide-spaced eyes under her perfectly arched brows were extraordinary: almond-shaped, dark-lashed, the colour of lapis lazuli. There were dark shadows beneath them, and her skin had the fragility of one who slept little, but nonetheless Lady Sophia Acton was one of the most beautiful woman The Procurer had ever encountered. It was an ethereal beauty, the type which would bring out the protective nature in some men, though more often than not, she thought darkly, the fine line between protection and exploitation would easily be crossed. Men would assume that Lady Sophia Acton’s fragile appearance equated to a fragile mind. Meeting the woman’s steady gaze, The Procurer thought very much otherwise.
‘Who are you? What do you want?’
The questions were perfunctory, the tone brusque. Lady Sophia had no time for social niceties, which suited The Procurer very well. She insinuated herself through the narrow opening, closing the door firmly behind her. ‘They call me The Procurer,’ she said. ‘And I want to put a business proposition to you.’
Sophia stared at the intruder in astonishment. This elegant, sophisticated woman was the elusive Procurer?
‘You are thinking that I look nothing like the creature of your imagination,’ her uninvited guest said. ‘Or perhaps I flatter myself. Perhaps you have not heard of me?’
‘I doubt there is anyone in London who has not heard of you, though how many have had the honour of making your acquaintance is a another matter. Your reputation for clandestine dealings goes before you.’
‘More of the great and the good use my services than you might imagine, or they would care to admit. Discretion, however, is what I insist upon above all. Whatever the outcome of our meeting today, Lady Sophia, I must have your promise that you will never talk of it.’
Sophia laughed at this. ‘Madam, you must be aware, for since you know my name you must also know of my notoriety, that there is no one who would listen even if I did. Those with a reputation to guard will cross the street to avoid me, while those who wish to further tarnish my reputation have no interest in my opinions on any subject.’
As she spoke, she led her visitor into the single room which had been her home for the last three weeks. The fourth home she had occupied in the six months since her return from France, each one smaller, dingier and less genteel than the preceding one. It was only a matter of time before she was expelled from her current abode, for London, despite being a big city was in reality a small place, and London’s respectable landladies were even smaller-minded.
‘I am afraid that my accommodation does not run to a parlour,’ Sophia said, drawing out one of her two wooden chairs. ‘A woman in my position, it seems, has no right to comfort.’
‘No.’ The Procurer took the seat, pulling off her kid gloves and untying the ribbon of her poke bonnet. ‘A woman in your position, Lady Sophia, has very few options. I take it, from your humble surroundings, that you have decided against the obvious solution to your penury?’
‘You do not mince your words,’ Sophia replied, irked to feel her cheeks heating.
‘I find that it is better to be blunt, when conducting my business,’ The Procurer replied with a slight smile. ‘That way there is no room for misconceptions.’
Sophia took her own seat opposite. ‘Very well then, I will tell you that your assumption is correct. I have decided – I am determined – not to avail myself of the many lucrative offers I have received since my return to London. I was forced into that particular occupation for one very important reason. That reason…’
Despite herself, her throat constricted. Under the table, she curled her hands into fists. She swallowed hard. ‘That reason no longer exists. Therefore I will never – never – demean myself in that manner again, no matter how straitened my circumstances. So if you have come here in order to plead some man’s cause, then I’m afraid your journey has been a wasted one.’
Tears burned in her eyes, yet Sophia met her visitor’s gaze, defying her to offer sympathy. The Procurer merely nodded, looking thoughtful. ‘I have come here to plead on behalf of a man, but my proposal is not what you imagine. The services he requires of you are not of that nature. To be clear, you would be required to put on a performance, but quite explicitly not in the bedchamber. The role is a taxing one, but I think you will be perfect for it.’
Sophia laughed bitterly. ‘I am certainly adept at acting. The entire duration of my last – engagement – was a performance, nothing more.’
‘Something we have in common. I too have earned a living from performing. The Procurer you see before you is a façade, a persona I have been forced to adopt.’
Which remark begged any number of questions. Sophia, however, hesitated. There was empathy in the woman’s expression – but also a clear warning that some things were better left unspoken. Locking such things away in the dark recesses of memory, never to be exposed to scrutiny, was the best way to deal with them, as she knew only too well. Sophia uncurled her fists, clasping her hands together on the table. ‘I will be honest with you, Madam, and trust that your reputation for discretion is well-earned. A woman in my position has, as you have pointed out, very few options, and even fewer resources. I do not know in what capacity I can be of service to you, but if I can do so without compromising what is left of my honour, then I will gladly consider your offer.’
Once again, The Procurer gave a little nod, though whether it was because she was satisfied with Sophia’s answer, or because Sophia had answered as she expected, there could be no telling. ‘What I can tell you is that the monetary reward for the fulfilment of your contract, should you choose to accept the commission, would be more than sufficient to secure your future, whatever form that might take.’
‘Frankly, I have no idea. At present, my only future plans are to survive day to day.’ But oh, Sophia thought, how much she would like to be able to discover for herself what the future might hold. Six months ago, bereft and utterly alone, raw with grief, she had been so low that she had contemplated acting to ensure that she had none. But life went on, and as it proceeded and her meagre funds dwindled, Sophia had not been able to look beyond the next month, the next week, the next day. Now, it seemed that a miracle might just be about to happen. The Procurer, that patroness of fallen women, was sitting opposite her and offering her a chance of redemption. ‘I have no idea what the future holds,’ Sophia repeated, with a slow smile, ‘but I do know that I want it, and that whatever it is, I want it to belong to me, and to no-one else.’
‘Something else we have in common, then, Lady Sophia.’ This time, The Procurer’s smile was warm. She reached over to touch Sophia’s hand. ‘I am aware of your circumstances, my dear, including the reason you were compelled to act as you did. You do not deserve to have paid such a high price, but sadly that is the way of our world. I cannot change that, but I do believe we can be of mutual benefit to each other. You do understand,’ she added, resuming her business-like tone, ‘that I am not offering you charity?’
‘And I am certain that you understand, for you seem to have investigated my background thoroughly, that I would not accept charity even if it was offered,’ Sophia retorted.
‘Then indeed, we understand each other very well.’
‘Not quite that well, Madam. I am as yet completely in the dark regarding this role you think me so perfectly suited for. What is it that you require me to do?’
But The Procurer held up her hand. ‘A few non-negotiable ground rules first, Lady Sophia. I will guarantee you complete anonymity. My client has no right to know your personal history other than that which is pertinent to the assignment or which you yourself choose to divulge. In return, you will give him your unswerving loyalty. We will discuss your terms shortly, but you must know that you will be paid only upon successful completion of your assignment. Half-measures will not be rewarded. If you leave before the task is completed, you will return to England without remuneration.’
‘Return to England?’ Sophia repeated, somewhat dazed. ‘You require me to travel abroad?’
‘All in good time. I must have your word, Lady Sophia.’
‘You have it, Madam, rest assured. Now, will you put me out of my misery and explain what it is that is required of me and who this mysterious client of yours is.’