Hampstead, near London—summer 1815
The village of Hampstead enjoyed an enviable location on the fringes of the capital. Though its popularity as a spa retreat had declined somewhat, the fresh, clean air and its proximity to London had encouraged a number of well-heeled new residents to settle there. Passing through fruit farms and dairies on her journey from the city, the woman known only by her enigmatic epithet The Procurer had enjoyed the rustic charm and tranquil atmosphere of her surroundings, a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of London where she plied her clandestine trade. Reining in her greys, she brought her phaeton to a halt before summoning a small boy standing idly nearby. She handed him the reins and proffered a sixpence. ‘I am looking for a Miss Galbraith.’
The child’s eyes widened, though he accepted both the reins and the coin. ‘Me mam says she’s one as don’t want to be found,’ he answered in a hushed voice. ‘She don’t answer the door to no one.’
The Procurer’s face tightened at this tangible evidence of the woman’s fall from grace. If it was at all possible, she was determined to provide this most deserving of cases with the means to redeem herself. No one deserved to be vilified by the gutter press in the manner she had been. Provided, of course, Miss Galbraith was a satisfactory match for her client’s requirements. The Procurer approved of altruism but drew the line at charity. ‘Then it is as well that I am someone,’ she said crisply to the boy. ‘Rest assured, she will answer the door to me. Now, point me in the direction of her abode, and no more of your lip.’
The cottage was located at the end of a row on the far edge of the village. It had a sunny, south-facing garden, but it was sadly neglected and overgrown with weeds. Though the street appeared deserted, The Procurer had the distinct impression that behind the curtained windows of the other cottages, the occupants were watching intently. As she picked her way up the little path to the front door, the contented buzzing of bees collecting pollen from the thicket of wild roses filled the air.
The cottage looked for all the world as if it was uninhabited. The windows were tightly shuttered. The shape of the door knocker was outlined by the bleached paint, but the mechanism itself had been removed. The Procurer rapped sharply with her knuckles.
‘Please go away, I do not receive or welcome visitors,’ a voice from behind the door urged.
‘That is disappointing to hear, since I have travelled from London to discuss a matter of great import with you.’
‘Then I’m afraid you have had a wasted journey. Whoever you are, and whatever it is you want, I cannot help you.’
‘You mistake my purpose. It is I who have come to help you. But I cannot do that if I am to be left standing on your doorstep. Will you not invite me in and at least hear me out? I am acquainted with your recent history and understand your natural suspiciousness, Miss Galbraith, but I bear you no ill will, I assure you.’
There was no immediate response but The Procurer’s patience was rewarded about thirty seconds later when the door opened just enough for her to slip inside before it slammed shut again.
The woman who stared back at her in confusion bore a clear resemblance to her many newspaper caricatures, though her expression was wary, rather than evil. Her distinctive bright copper hair was tied in a simple chignon, not tumbling wantonly over her shoulders as it was customarily depicted in the press. Her chin was determined, but her mouth was soft and full. Of petite stature, she looked to The Procurer to be twenty-five or six, though she had, according to the gutter press, turned thirty. There were shadows under her big hazel eyes flecked with gold, her skin had the dull, lacklustre look of someone who had been hiding from plain view, skulking in the shadows. ‘Do not look so afraid, Miss Galbraith,’ she said, ‘I truly have come here to help you.’
‘I am sure you mean well, but you are mistaken. No one can help me.’
‘Not if you are determined to let Dr Anthony Merchmont and his medical cronies destroy not only your reputation as London’s pre-eminent herbalist, but your entire life.’
Allison Galbraith’s eyes flashed with anger at this barb. An encouraging sign, The Procurer decided.
‘As you have pointed out, my reputation is already in tatters.’
‘Very true,’ The Procurer conceded. ‘However, six months have elapsed,’ she continued briskly. ‘Time to embrace a new challenge. I can offer you rehabilitation.’
‘Impossible.’ Miss Galbraith’s voice was resigned. ‘Look, I have no idea who you are, but...’
‘I am known, rather fancifully in my opinion, as The Procurer. You may have heard mention of me.’
The revelation was met by a surprised widening of the eyes, a mouth curved into the faintest of smiles. ‘All of London has heard tell of The Procurer, though few have ever encountered you in the flesh. I was not aware you were a fellow Scot. I certainly did not expect—’ Miss Galbraith broke off, blushing. ‘You are so young and nothing like...’
‘The person my reputation would suggest? Then we have that much in common, do we not?’
A dejected little laugh greeted this remark. ‘We might, if I still had a reputation. Your position in society is quite unassailable, while I...’
‘You are a social pariah.’
A harsher laugh greeted this remark. ‘You certainly do not mince your words.’
‘In my business, straight talking is essential.’
‘Then I will reply in a similar vein, madam. I cannot for the life of me comprehend why you should wish to help me.’
‘I know what it is like, Miss Galbraith, to be a woman in a man’s world. To succeed as you did—and as I have—requires an uncommon level of determination and ambition. The sacrifices you have made, the hurdles you have overcome, would have defeated a lesser character.’
‘But not you?’
The remark was intended to be flattering, but provoked a different reaction. ‘I have succeeded on my own terms, but at considerable cost,’ The Procurer said, as much a reminder to herself as a boast. She would not permit herself to wonder whether the sacrifices had been worth it. ‘It is not simply a matter of character, Miss Galbraith. I am in control of my own destiny and answerable to no one, that is true, but it was not always so.’
‘In that sense we differ greatly, madam,’ Miss Galbraith replied wryly, ‘for even at the height of my success, I was beholden to society.’
‘And society chose to condemn you. Now you are choosing to abide by that judgement. Do you agree with it, Miss Galbraith? Or do you think you deserve a second chance?’
‘Is that what you are offering?’
‘I am offering you the opportunity to fashion a second chance for yourself. What you make of it is very much up to you.’
The Procurer smiled faintly. ‘We are kindred spirits in more ways than you can know. You are also, as you pointed out, a fellow countrywoman and we Scots must stick together.’
‘Forgive me, but since we are speaking plainly, you do not know me. I cannot believe your motives are entirely philanthropic.’
The Procurer nodded with satisfaction. ‘There, you see, we do understand one another. We are both, in our way, hard-headed businesswomen. As such, you will not be offended, I am sure, if I tell you that I have carried out extensive diligence on you to my satisfaction. I have a business proposition for you, Miss Galbraith, which will be mutually beneficial, as all the best contracts are. Now, shall we make ourselves more comfortable, and I will explain all.’
* * *
Allison spooned camomile leaves into the china teapot and set it down on the table beside the cups and saucers before taking her seat opposite her unexpected and uninvited guest.
‘You were exceedingly difficult to track down,’ The Procurer said, looking perfectly at home, ‘though I can understand your desire to avoid the unwelcome glare of publicity.’
‘Notoriety would be a more apt description. In another few months I will be old news, and the world will find a new scandal, another cause célèbre to salivate over.’
‘Is that what you are hoping for?’
Resentment flared as Allison met her visitor’s challenging look. What could this elegant, haughtily beautiful woman with her flawless complexion, her black-as-night hair and her tall willowy frame, clad in the kind of understated carriage dress that screamed affluence, truly know about shattered dreams, about ravening guilt, about endless, sleepless nights going over and over and over those vital hours and asking, What if? Could I have done something different? Should I have done something different? Would it have made any difference if I had?
‘If you mean, do I think I will be able to re-establish myself, then the answer is no.’
‘So what, precisely, are your aspirations? To avenge yourself on the man who has engineered your spectacular fall from grace, perhaps?’
Allison took her time pouring the tea. There was something about The Procurer’s clear, steady gaze, that made her feel as if the woman could read her innermost thoughts. Even those she didn’t choose to admit to herself. ‘I have no aspirations at all,’ she said, ‘save to be left in peace.’
If she expected compassion, she was destined to be disappointed. ‘If you really mean that,’ The Procurer answered, ‘then I am wasting my time.’
‘As I have already informed you.’
‘But you don’t mean it, do you?’ The Procurer took a sip of the fragrant tea. ‘You are angry, and with just cause, for you have been made a scapegoat, your livelihood stolen, your reputation left in tatters. You have been the subject of lurid headlines, both libellous and slanderous and, I hasten to add, patently false. That is punishment out of all proportion to your alleged crime, if indeed you are culpable?’
Allison’s hands curled into fists, but she could not stop the tears from welling. ‘I committed no crime,’ she said tightly. ‘But to speak in the plain terms you prefer, I will tell you that I cannot be certain I was entirely blameless.’
She was trembling now. The memory of that night, her role in the events that unfolded, however significant or not that role might have been, threatened to overwhelm her. She screwed her eyes shut, opening them only on feeling the fleeting, comforting touch of The Procurer’s hand on hers. ‘How can I not blame myself?’ Allison demanded wretchedly, for the first time, and to this complete stranger, allowing herself to utter the words. ‘I did not believe, did not question—until he did. And now I will never be certain that I was not culpable in some way.’
‘No, but you can ask yourself, Miss Galbraith, what are the odds? Have you ever before miscalculated so badly or made such a catastrophic mistake?’
‘Never! Nature has defeated me on occasion, but I have never precipitated such a tragic outcome.’
‘And yet you meekly accepted the verdict and the punishment as if you had.’
‘Yes, I did, and now it is far too late to contradict it, even if I wanted to.’ Allison thumped her fist on the table, making the teacups shake in their saucers. ‘The medical profession in our country...’
‘...is a cabal of exclusively male-vested interests, whether it be doctors, surgeons, or apothecaries. There are midwives, granted, but even the most skilled do not carry any real authority. You, on the other hand, had gained a real foothold in society as a gifted herbalist. You were a successful woman, Miss Galbraith, a real alternative to accepted medical practice and as such, a threat to the old guard, as the systematic defamation of your character has demonstrated.’
‘Yet no one, not a single one of my former patients, has spoken out in my defence.’
‘They too must accept the rules of society, the world they inhabit. Has it occurred to you, Miss Galbraith, that your refusal to practise once that tragic event became public confirmed your guilt?’
‘It certainly confirmed what I should never have lost sight of,’ Allison said bitterly. ‘I am an outsider. Despite all my efforts to conform to their standards, they had no hesitation in stabbing me in the back. I am not, and never will be one of them. They would have found another excuse to point the finger at me sooner or later.’
‘So you have chosen to surrender, to grant them their victory?’
Under The Procurer’s steady gaze, Allison bit back her instinctive denial, and contented herself with a shrug.
‘Guilty, innocent or plain negligent, you have spent the last six months in hiding, sitting on your hands,’ The Procurer continued. ‘It is not Anthony Merchmont who is preventing you treating patients, is it, Miss Galbraith? Do you not miss your vocation?’
‘More than I could ever have imagined,’ Allison replied instantly. ‘It means everything to me, to heal pain, to help...’ She stopped short, fighting for control. ‘Do you know the worst thing, madam? They destroyed more than my reputation, they destroyed my confidence.’
‘Doubting yourself is a perfectly natural consequence of what you have been through, but I speak from experience when I counsel you to overcome that fear, lest it destroy you.’ A shadow clouded The Procurer’s eyes, though it was quickly banished. ‘If I were to provide you with an opportunity to utilise your specialist knowledge and experience, would you grasp it?’
‘It is not possible,’ Allison said automatically, though she was already wondering if it was, for The Procurer’s calm, matter-of-fact logic had roused her crushed spirit to push aside its suffocating blanket of bitterness and regret.
‘My reputation, Miss Galbraith, has been forged by making the impossible possible. Whether you give me the opportunity to prove that to be well founded is entirely dependent on you.’
‘But I can’t. You said it yourself, I am a social pariah. No one in London...’
‘The position I require to be filled is not based in London.’
‘Oh.’ Oddly, it had not occurred to her to consider a change of location from the city in which she had worked so hard to establish herself. But it made sense, if she was considering emerging from her hibernation. And that was an apt word. She felt as if she had been sleeping, or living through a nightmare. Was it over? ‘Where, then?’ Allison asked.
The woman smiled very faintly in acknowledgement of this progress. ‘All in good time. You must understand, this is no ordinary contract of employment that I offer you.’
Extraordinary. Allison’s grandmother had always told her that was what she should aspire to be. Ordinary, Seanmhair always said, was for life’s passengers. Would her grandmother expect her to grasp at this straw? The answer was a resounding yes, but did she possess the courage to do so? The answer to that was suddenly both clear and unambiguous.
‘I flatter myself,’ Allison said, ‘that I have demonstrated myself capable of the extraordinary. As you pointed out, I have succeeded against the odds.’
‘I take it then, that you are willing to consider my proposal?’
It took Allison a few moments to recognise the fluttering in her belly. Not fear, but anticipation. She had not dared allow herself to hope, but suddenly here was hope, and—oh, good heavens—she wanted it so much.
‘Well?’ The Procurer raised one perfectly arched brow.
‘Yes.’ The relief was almost overwhelming. ‘Yes,’ Allison repeated more firmly. ‘Just tell me what it is you require me to do.’
But for several long agonising moments The Procurer said nothing, studying her closely through heavy-lidded eyes, as if she were a specimen in a laboratory. Allison held the woman’s gaze, clasping her hands tightly in her lap to stop herself squirming. The woman’s smile was slow to dawn, but when it came, it would be no exaggeration, Allison thought, to liken it to the sun coming out.
‘A very wise decision on your part and on mine too, I believe. You will do very well for the vacancy I have been asked to fulfil. Now, to business,’ The Procurer said briskly. ‘Before I disclose the nature of your appointment, I must apprise you of a few non-negotiable ground rules. 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 choose yourself to divulge. In return, you will give him your complete 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 tolerated. If you leave before the task is completed, you will return to England without remuneration.’
‘Return to England?’ Allison repeated, somewhat dazed. ‘You require me to travel abroad?’
‘All in good time. Do you understand me, Miss Galbraith? This conversation, the details which I am about to unveil, are given in complete confidence. Unless I can guarantee my discretion to my clients—’
‘I understand you very well, madam,’ Allison interrupted. ‘Discretion is—was—intrinsic to my calling too.’
‘Another trait we have in common, then. Do I have your word?’
Allison startled the pair of them with a peal of laughter. ‘Madam, you have ignited the flame of hope I thought was quite extinguished. You have my word of honour, and you can have it signed in blood if you wish it. Now please, tell me, where is it I am to go, and who is this mysterious client of yours?’