Authors: Megan Frampton
To Scott, my own ridiculously intelligent husband, and Rhys, my remarkably wonderful, curious, and brilliant son. I love you
27. Because it’s better than falling into a muddy ditch.
The Quality Employment Agency, London
“He left you with nothing?”
Edwina glanced to the side of the room, a tactic she knew full well wouldn’t disguise the moisture in her eyes, especially
not from Carolyn, her oldest and dearest friend. They’d met when Edwina’s late husband had wanted to find a respectable, but
inexpensive, maidservant, and Carolyn’s agency had found the perfect person. And Edwina had finally found a friend she could
actually talk to.
The room was as familiar to her as her own lodgings—and definitely more welcoming. A kettle was heating up water on the small
stove, the tea things—the chipped blue cup for Carolyn, the cup with the handle that was always too hot for her—waiting until
the water boiled.
Cozy, comfortable, and everything else she was not.
“No.” She spoke plainly, unable and unwilling to disguise the truth of it.
Eight years of marriage to one of the most boring men of her acquaintance, and he didn’t even have the decency to leave her
financially comfortable when he died.
“I can help you, you know,” Carolyn said in a soft voice. She got up as the kettle began to whistle and started preparing
Edwina’s throat tightened. “I won’t take your money.” Fine words for a pauper—they both knew that if the choice came between
accepting charity and letting her daughter starve, Edwina would take the money. Gertrude sat on the floor, playing with her
dolls. Was she already getting thinner? Edwina’s heart hurt at the thought, and she had to bite the inside of her cheek not
to start fretting aloud. That would do nothing but worry her daughter, who wasn’t old enough to understand.
Edwina wasn’t entirely certain she was old enough to understand, either.
“I wasn’t offering to give you any money,” Carolyn replied in a dry tone of voice, glancing over her shoulder as she spoke.
Edwina’s gaze met Carolyn’s.
“Well, what then?” she asked in an unsteady voice.
“Employment,” Carolyn replied, returning to her task.
“Employment?” Edwina echoed, an uneasy feeling settling somewhere in her gut. The gut that was remarkably close to her stomach,
which hadn’t eaten today, and had only had some porridge and some hard cheese yesterday.
So the uneasy feeling would have to ease.
“You do know I run an employment agency.” Carolyn gestured to the room they sat in. “Since you have used my services.”
“Yes, back when I could afford them,” Edwina replied in a tone that was both wry and pained.
She took a deep breath, and looked around her. It was undeniably pleasant, if modest. The cozy, comfortable room of the Quality
Employment Agency, filled with books, papers, mismatched chairs, and an enormous battered desk, where Carolyn normally sat,
welcomed her, made her feel safe in a way her new lodgings did not.
“Yes, but—” and then Edwina felt both foolish and snobby, since the answer was obvious, and yet had not occurred to her because
of who she was. Who she had been.
“But what?” Carolyn picked up the teacups, wincing as she felt the heat from the offending handle. She brought them over to
where Edwina was seated, placing them on the desk and sitting back down in her usual spot. “You need a job, Edwina. No matter
who you are. Even ladies—especially ladies, judging from my experience—need to have enough money to eat and to live. Even
if their husbands were so disappointing as to leave them bereft of anything but their good name.”
“And even that was sullied, thanks to George’s entrusting of the accounts to his brother as soon as it seemed the businesses
were getting profitable, and worthy of notice,” Edwina remarked in a bitter tone. She kept her tone low, so her daughter couldn’t
hear. “I told him I could handle them, that I had gotten them to the state they were in, not to mention I told him how untrustworthy
his brother was—and yet he said he’d never ‘let a female deal with important things,’ ” she said in an imitation of her late
“More fool he,” Carolyn remarked. “If he had allowed you to continue to oversee the finances you wouldn’t be in this situation
now, would you?”
It was a well-worn discussion, but one that still made Edwina angry. George had been so blind to her attributes he hadn’t
seen she was skilled at maths, far better than anyone in his own family, especially his debt-beleaguered younger brother.
He had been fine when she oversaw the accounts when they weren’t important—but ironically, as soon as her skill had yielded
results, he took them away from her and handed them to a man. Simply because he was a man, and his brother, and not a woman,
and his wife.
And now she and little Gertrude were being made to suffer for it. George’s brother hadn’t done more than shrug when Edwina
had told him how George had left her. He already had a wife, he said, and he couldn’t afford to take her in, although he had
offered a place to his niece.
But Edwina couldn’t bear the thought of being separated from her daughter; she was the only thing keeping Edwina from stepping
in front of an oxcart one day. That she and Gertrude might starve to death was not something she wanted to contemplate—what
reasonable person would?—even though she had to.
Which brought her back to why she was currently sitting with her closest friend in said closest friend’s employment agency,
realizing that perhaps she had to consider employment herself.
“What can I do?” she said at last, hating how pathetic and needy she sounded.
Better pathetic and needy than dead
, a voice said inside her head.
Carolyn chuckled, taking a sip of her tea. “What can’t you do? You can balance accounts, drive hard bargains with tradesmen,
oversee skittish maids, sort out the temperamental discord among upper-class servants, and keep an older husband relatively
comfortable in illness. Not to mention you are extremely well-read—there are benefits to having a neglectful husband—and your
parents ensured you had all the education you’d need to be an adept wife, whether you married a politician, a solicitor, or
even a lord.”
“Or a businessman with lofty pretensions,” Edwina added. “They thought they had taken care of me. I wish they were still here.”
She shook her head. “I do not wish to be married again, if that is the employment you are suggesting.” Once was enough, and
she would have said never would have been enough if it weren’t for Gertrude. And it is not as though she had any other family
to resort to; her parents had both been only children, and she had no relatives that she knew of.
“I am not in a husband acquisition business, Edwina,” Carolyn replied in a mocking tone. “If I were, don’t you think I could
afford a better office?”
They both glanced around at the tidy but shabby room. “Excellent point,” Edwina replied with a grin, picking up the cup with
the still-hot handle and taking a welcome sip of tea. “So what do you have in mind?”
“Thank you for your time.” Michael picked up the bell on his desk and rang it once. “The type of secretary I require will
need more skills than you appear to possess. You may go.”
The door opened to let his butler in as Michael was sitting back down, not even bothering to watch as the candidate left,
still expostulating as Hawkins led him out.
That made fourteen candidates he’d seen, and none of them would suffice.
“How difficult is it to find someone who is reasonably intelligent, organized, and doesn’t make me want to fling heavy objects
at his head?” This he addressed to his dog, Chester, who lay on the floor to the right of the desk.
Chester had no reply. Not unsurprising, since he was fast asleep, his limbs splayed out on the floor.
Well, he could now come closer to answering that even if Chester wouldn’t, and the answer would have to be
If not impossible
. Even his dog would have to agree.
If he didn’t find someone soon, he would have to take on the task himself, since Chester had already tacitly declined the
position, and while he wasn’t averse to hard work, he was averse to doing things that someone else could be doing. It wasn’t
the sensible thing to do, and Michael was nothing if not sensible.
He knew full well that people who didn’t like him—which seemed to be most of the people who met him—would also add he was
arrogant, opinionated, plainspoken, and condescending. He could now put fourteen more people on the list of people who didn’t
like him. Not that he cared. He never had.
He’d only rarely felt the pangs of—of something, of wanting something more. But the pangs usually ebbed when he thought about
having to tolerate having that intangible something in his life that could likely be as frustrating and inadequate as everything
he’d encountered before.
He just needed to find a secretary. Not have to endure something that would inevitably end in disappointment.
Actually, he’d endure a secretary who didn’t like him if the man could do the job.
His standards were getting lower, it seemed. He felt his lips twist into a rare smile at the thought, and he drew another
applicant’s letter from the stack on his desk.
There had to be somebody who would suit.
“Another applicant is here, Your Grace.” Hawkins cleared his throat, something he did only when he had bad news to give. The
last time had been three and a half years ago, when a fire had ravaged Michael’s stables. Michael had helped drag out all
but three of the horses, leaving him with scarring on his hands and a profound dislike of his butler’s throat clearing.
“What is it?” Michael said in a snappish tone. Because unless the applicant was on fire himself, he didn’t see the point of
Hawkins being so diffident.
“It is not a man, Your Grace.” Another throat clearing. “It is a woman.” A pause. “A young woman.”
Michael’s brow rose. “And? The applicant is female, is that the cause of your distress?”
Hawkins bowed. “Precisely, Your Grace. The Quality Employment Agency assured us in their correspondence that the candidate
was fully adept in all ways, but the agency did not see fit to inform us of the candidate’s gender.” Left unspoken, to Michael,
was that Hawkins hadn’t done sufficient investigation to discover just what type of agency he was dealing with. Another example
of why he needed a secretary.
Michael refrained from shouting in reply. Really, people should give him a lot more credit than they did. There were so many
remarkably slow people, many of whom were in his employ, it was a wonder he wasn’t constantly yelling. Instead, he drew a
deep breath. “Send the candidate in, then.”
Hawkins knew Michael well enough not to say anything more, thankfully. “Excellent, Your Grace,” he said, bowing.
“A woman, Chester,” Michael said. This time, Chester was awake, but showed no interest in conversing. Perhaps if the candidate
had been a juicy steak Chester would have had something to say.
Michael sat down at his desk, reviewing the information about the candidate that nonetheless neglected to mention she was
She did indeed have everything he required, because he didn’t believe a secretary in his employ necessarily had to be the
same sex as he was. Despite what his butler and likely everyone else in the world believed.
If she was the best man for the job, he’d hire her. That was the sensible thing to do. And not only that, it wasn’t as though
there were very many places he could continue his search—clearly, if the current candidate was female, he had reached the
limits of possible options. He hoped she would be a viable choice.
“Mrs. Cheltam, Your Grace.”
Michael raised his eyes to where she stood in the doorway. Hawkins had seen fit to mention that she was a woman, but not that
she was a wickedly, gloriously beautiful woman.
Not that that would matter any more than that she was female in the first place. Not to Michael.
She strode into the room and he appraised her as he would any work of art: thick, lustrous hair drawn back into a severe hairstyle,
highlighting her remarkable cheekbones. Large, dark eyes fringed with long lashes. A nose that was strong and straight, not
one of those namby-pamby retroussé noses most people found appealing.
A lush, full mouth with a beauty mark just to the left.
And that wasn’t even accounting for her figure, which—like a truly skilled appraiser—he could see was curved in all the right
places, her demure clothing only serving to hint more broadly at what might lie beneath.
He remained seated. She was here for a position; he didn’t see the point of treating her like a usual woman, since he’d already
established—in his mind, at least—that it didn’t matter if she was a female or not.
Her expression flickered for a moment, then she smoothed her features and took the seat in front of his desk, settling herself
into a perfect pose of politeness.
“I understand you are interested in taking employment as a secretary.” Michael tapped the paper listing her qualifications.
“I see you have some experience with what I need taken care of. But I would like to hear from you why you are the best choice
for the job.” At this rate, the only choice, given that the remainder of the applicants looked even worse than his last secretary,
who’d made a muddle of everything, which Michael hadn’t noticed until it was almost too late. That still made him furiously
angry. Not at Mr. Crear; the man was an idiot, he couldn’t help it that he didn’t understand, but at himself for not assessing
the situation earlier. He wouldn’t make that mistake again.
“Of course, Your Grace.” She visibly swallowed, then let out a soft exhale. “I have experience in accounting, keeping engagements,
managing a household, and I have excellent penmanship and correspondence skills.” She met his gaze squarely, raising her chin
as she spoke. “I hope you will take all of my qualifications into consideration and not focus on the fact that I am a female.”
He raised his eyebrows. “I have not made mention of it, have I?” He spread his hands out. “And yet it is patently obvious.”
Especially because she was such a beautiful female. There would be no mistaking this woman for anything but a woman. “So in
drawing attention to it yourself, that would suggest to me that you are considering it, and yet wish me not to.”