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 easiest solution is to hire a paid companion. However, finding the right candidate proves more of a challenge than he expected – until he encounters Miss Elenora Lodge. Her dowdy attire and pinned-up hair cannot hide her fine figure and the fire in her golden eyes. And her unfortunate circumstances, and dreams of a life of independence, make the Earl’s generous offer undeniably appealing.
But Elenora is unsure what this masquerade might entail. For St. Merryn is clearly hiding a secret or two, and things seem oddly amiss in his gloomy Rain Street home. She is soon to discover that his secrets are even darker than his decor, and that this lark will be a far more dangerous adventure than she’s been led to believe.
And Arthur, Earl of St. Merryn, is making a discovery as well: that the meek and mild companion he’d initially envisioned has become, in reality, a partner in his quest to catch a killer – and an outspoken belle of the ball who stirs a wild passion in his practical heart.
This was a lot of fun to listen to although I suspect I might not have enjoyed it as much had I read the book. Michael Page is one of those narrators whose name on an audiobook is guaranteed to make me take a second or third look, and even though he’s not narrated a huge number of romance novels, I’ve enjoyed those I’ve heard. (Most recently, I liked his reading of Victoria Alexander’s The Importance of Being Wicked).
The plot in this story centres around Arthur Lancaster, Earl of St. Merryn and his search for the murderer of his uncle, who had been one of a group of three brilliant scientists who, in their younger days, had been fascinated by the prospect of constructing something called “Jove’s Thunderbolt” (which sounds to me like some type of laser) from a set of obscure alchemical plans. The project was never completed, however, as the trio moved on to more serious scientific and philosophical matters.
Eleanora Lodge is a young woman fallen on hard times since the death of her father who is forced to seek employment in order to support herself. At the advanced age of twenty-six, she reasons that her best bet is to try to find work as a lady’s companion and with that in mind, registers her interest with employment agencies that recruit ladies for such positions.
St. Merryn returns to London in order to begin his search but knowing his presence at the numerous and varied social functions that comprise the season will make him a prime target for all the match-making mamas, decides that the best way to escape them will be to arrive with a fiancée in tow. He therefore applies to an agency in order to hire a paid companion –and at first can find no-one who meets his exacting requirements.
Until Eleanora bursts in, unannounced.
So what we have here is a “pretend couple” romance, which I admit, is one of the tropes of which I’m quite fond. St. Merryn is rich, handsome and has a reputation for having a mind like a steel trap and a heart of ice. He’s autocratic and doesn’t suffer fools gladly which means that though he is generally well-respected by his peers, most of them are afraid – rather than fond – of him.
The romance progresses in a fairly predictable manner, and the author does a great job building some searing sexual tension between the couple. The sex scenes are fairly tame, but I rather liked the humourous tone, which was a nice link between their usual, day-to-day interactions and this new turn taken in their relationship. I always think that a couple that banters and teases will continue to do so in the bedroom – so the humour felt completely appropriate. I particularly liked this, from the first time they’re *ahem* getting down to business:
… he casually removed a linen handkerchief from a pocket and placed it to one side. Did he expect to sneeze in the middle of this business? she wondered.
and then, later, when St. Merryn has a minor strop because he’s just found out Eleanora was a virgin (to be fair, she’d kind of led him to believe she wasn’t, but never explicitly said so either way)
“Damnation, I took you to be a lady of some experience in this sort of thing.”
She smiled up at him. “I have good news, sir. As of this instant, I am, indeed, a lady of some experience.”
“Do not taunt me,” he warned. “I am exceedingly annoyed with you.”
“Does that mean that you are not going to finish what we have started?”
His face was fierce in the firelight. “I cannot seem to think clearly at the moment.”
The plot thickens, the mystery deepens and the clues start to come thick and fast. The dénouement is, I will admit, more than a bit daft, but what sustained my interest was the relationship between the two protagonists. Having employed Eleanora as a decoy so that he would be able to navigate his way around society seeking answers without being viewed as a viable marriage prospect, St. Merryn quickly realises that Eleanora’s quick mind and natural intelligence can be of valuable assistance to him. He does not dismiss her opinions and in fact finds himself trusting her and her judgement more than he has done with almost anyone; and Eleanora very cleverly works out how – on occasion – to make her ideas seem like they were his 😉
Michael Page’s vocal characterisations are excellent and he is very good at differentiating between all the different individuals in the story. He is also one of those male narrators who is able to perform female characters convincingly by softening his tone rather than raising the pitch of his voice to a silly degree. I’ve read a criticism somewhere that his interpretation of St. Merryn was too high pitched and nasal, but I didn’t find that at all. He did adopt a higher pitch and harsher tone than he used for his narration, but I felt it was in keeping with the character because Arthur is harsh – on the outside at least. I also thought that the stern tone worked very well with the humour in the book as St. Merryn is frequently shown to have a very dry sense of humour that is of the sort apt to be missed by the less discerning among the ton. I thought that giving his voice that element of severity only served to emphasise the contrast between St. Merryn the real man and the austere and rather forbidding face he presented to the world.
Finally, here’s another of my favourite moments, from when Arthur proposes to Eleanora.
“I took one look at you and I knew that you would be the best investment I could ever possibly make.”
She smiled tremulously. “Oh, Arthur, that is the most romantic thing anyone has ever said to me.”
“Thank you. I was rather pleased with it, myself. I practiced it during the carriage ride here today.”
To sum up – I love a witty hero with a mischievous sense of humour and a heroine who doesn’t simper and who can give as good as she gets in the bantering stakes. The ending was undoubtedly silly, but I liked spending time with Arthur and Eleonora and Michael Page’s excellent narration served to make The Paid Companion a very entertaining piece of audio fluff.