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.
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May 02, 2004
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Excerpt from The Paid Companion by Amanda Quick
The 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.