Tuesday, December 20, 1904
Sir Thomas Benedict Featherstone, Tubby to his many friends, acquaintances and readers of the gossip sheets, couldn’t quite see the old woman’s eyes behind her gray spectacles.
He could feel them, though, boring holes into his bespoke suit and his neatly-brushed dark hair and into his earlobes, for all he knew. He felt he was under a microscope and being found insufficient. Insipid. Insignificant.
Which was insulting to say the very least. While he was disarmingly modest, Thomas also knew he was rich, handsome, and he had a superb eye for the Next Thing. In art, in music, in novels—there was no one in society who moved as sure-footedly as he did amongst creative people. For a youngish man of twenty-seven, he’d amassed an art collection that was the envy of museums worldwide. He’d had books dedicated to him, even a long rambling poem that wasn’t very good but nonetheless touted his great taste.
And he was considered universally charming, and not in any kind of smarmy way, either. Thomas had an interest in getting what he wanted, but had such a delightful way of going about it, people never felt importuned. He was, if he said so himself, just naturally nice—men and women both spoke his praises—so it seemed a bit unfair that this dragonlike Mrs. Evensong was giving him a touch of heartburn.
For heaven’s sake, he’d come to her agency to find a competent secretary on his friend’s wife’s recommendation, and was willing to pay top dollar for the privilege. His man of business Thurston was useless for his new endeavor. Thomas was establishing an artists’ colony, where his protégés could work in unfettered surroundings, unconcerned about where their bread or next bottle of wine were coming from. To work in peace and relative prosperity. By God, Thomas was like a fairy godfather. Art for all and all for art! He was committed to enriching and beautifying society, damn it, and this little dab of a woman was making him feel like Jack the Ripper.
He could usually sell ice to frost-bitten Eskimos, but was making absolutely no headway this morning at all. One question after the next, and he was feeling more and more like the boy who got thrown out of school a dozen years ago. He picked up a business card from her desk and with nimble fingers proceeded to turn it into a very good likeness of a miniature Chinese junk as he faced her inquisition.
“Look, Mrs. Evensong, I’m looking for just a secretary, not a wife,” he finally blurted out in frustration, tossing the ruined card into the metal wastebasket.
He never lost his temper. Never. But he was coming close at the moment.
“There is no such thing as ‘just a secretary,’” the ancient old crone said with hauteur. How had she managed to be in business so many years if she treated all her clients like this?
“What do you mean?” he asked, not much caring what her answer was. Time was wasting, and if the Evensong Agency couldn’t help him, his millions would insure someone would.
“A good secretary will know what you are thinking before you do and make it happen. You have great ambitions, I understand. You want to make your mark as a patron of the arts. You cannot do it without the appropriate person at your side.”
“I know,” Thomas ground out. “That’s why I’m here.”
“You think it’s just a matter of handing someone a pencil and a piece of paper so she’ll take notes.”
This caught Thomas up short. “She? I didn’t stipulate I wanted a female secretary. Some of the things my employee will be required to do might best be handled by a man.”
“I thought you said this establishment you’re proposing will be above reproach,” Mrs. Evensong reminded him sternly.
“Yes, of course. But artists can be…difficult. I’ll require someone with very strong character and exemplary morals to manage things.”
“It goes without saying that all of our potential candidates conform to those requirements. We would not have the reputation we do if I were to stick just anyone willy-nilly into London’s best households.” She steepled her gloved fingers. “I believe I have the perfect person for you, a dear girl—why, I feel she’s like a niece to me. Very bright and organized. She managed this office until recently with executive precision and superior judgment.”
Thomas was immediately distrustful. “Why did you let this paragon go?”
“I haven’t really—she still comes in, though with reduced hours. She’s been…unwell.”
Aha! So he’d been right. Thomas pictured a pale, wan, fainting sort of creature and shook his head. “No disrespect meant, Mrs. Evensong, but I’ll need someone with backbone.”
Thomas needed someone with backbone and frontbone…to stand up to him. He tended to get caught up a trifle too enthusiastically in his projects on occasion and needed someone to steady him. Not like Thurston, who only threw buckets of cold water on his every thought, but someone who might sprinkle a gentle rain on his more far-fetched ideas and make him reluctantly acknowledge reality.
Thomas tended to disapprove of reality on the whole, and was much happier watching a curtain rise or examining an Impressionist painting.
Besides his difficulty with reality, Thomas had too many ideas. Most of them were excellent, but sometimes a few rubbishy ones encroached. He was wise enough about himself to know that while he didn’t need a keeper, it was sometimes necessary to rein things in a little. Just a gentle tug on the bit, and Thomas usually returned to the straightaway.
Thurston thought he was much too free with his fortune. Which was absurd. Thomas was immensely rich, and it would take a great many cork-brained ideas to drain him of all his wealth. The difficulty was that Thurston thought any expenditure on the arts was a complete waste of money.
The man had no soul.
Thurston also disapproved of Thomas’s little harem of complaisant actresses and singers and models. But the girls were jolly good fun and worth every penny.
“Miss Benson has plenty of backbone. You wouldn’t require her services more than approximately four hours a day, would you?”
Thomas hadn’t really given the specifics of the job much attention. He’d assumed his new secretary would be a fixture at the extra desk in the library, waiting on his every need at whatever the hour.
Well, not every need. No point in thinking of that.
“And no more than four days a week. She keeps house for her father and younger brothers.”
These limitations didn’t suit Thomas at all. Was he to be saddled with some weak female who couldn’t even turn up to work on time and then checked her watch to see when she could leave? He was about to protest when Mrs. Evensong pressed a button on her desk and spoke into a tube. “Oliver, send Harriet in. I think I’ve found her the perfect position.”
“Now wait just a minute,” Thomas began, until the frosted glass door opened and he forgot what he wanted to say.
This sublime creature was Harriet? It was as if a thunderbolt had cleaved his brain in two.
Mrs. Evensong was introducing them. The young woman’s full name was Harriet Benson, and she was dressed appallingly, in a baggy brown tweed suit that failed to hide her spectacular curves. She wore glasses, too, but Thomas thought she was Juno come to life—proud and regal, except for the slight stoop that some overly tall women resorted resort to. Her hair was a wavy mass of caramel and milk chocolate, bundled up in a haphazard way that just asked to be released to ripple over her shoulders.
She didn’t look sickly at all, even not wearing a lick of paint as many of Thomas’s female friends did. Her skin was cream kissed with a splash of coffee, and her straight, perfect nose was slightly freckled. Her eyelashes were astonishingly thick, and framed inquiring brown eyes made larger by the lenses in her spectacles.
Thomas was large and lanky himself, and had sometimes felt clumsy with delicate society women. Truth to tell, he felt a little clumsy now. His mind was as blank as an ignorant child’s slate. He couldn’t for the life of him conjure up chalk or any of his usual smooth words.
He realized something was expected of him. Of course. A lady had entered the room and he was obliged to stand.
No. Not a lady. She was just a secretary, although Mrs. Evensong had objected to the ‘just’ and Thomas was inclined to agree with her. Miss Benson was far beyond any kind of qualifier.
He couldn’t possibly hire her. One did not lust after one’s secretary. Thomas had a reputation to uphold, false and annoying as it was. Presumably Miss Benson was a proper young woman, and Thomas never consorted with proper young women. They were fatal to his bachelorhood, and a proper young woman who had to work for a living was even more deadly. He’d never been a cad to take advantage of the help and wasn’t going to start now. How could this vision of divine womanhood sit across from him for sixteen hours a week without him making an absolute fool of himself?
Thomas was on his feet now, and if he still had a unified brain he would dash out the door Miss Benson had just entered.
“Urk.” Urk? That was the best he could do? His throat was as dry as the Sahara.
Miss Benson held out a hand. “I’m very pleased to meet you, Sir Thomas.”
Her handshake was firm, her voice melodious. She spoke very carefully, as if she were trying to sound as businesslike as possible. All Thomas wanted to do take off her ghastly suit. Encourage her to stand up straight. Or better yet, lie down. She deserved to be painted nude. Immortalized for all mankind to see.
Harriet Benson was simply magnificent.
Disaster. He’d never had a reaction like this to a woman in his life. What in hell was wrong with him?
Oh, where to start.
Mrs. Evensong was speaking, Miss Benson was nodding. She sat down next to the chair he’d vacated, and he admired a rebellious curl that had been tucked behind a shell-like ear. Eventually Thomas realized both women were staring at him, so he sat down too.
Practicalities were then discussed, to which Thomas took no part. He wasn’t feeling at all practical. In fact, he didn’t know what he was feeling, except it was dashed inconvenient and he was grateful to have a hat to cover his lap and his burgeoning erection. He should be ashamed—hell, he was ashamed. Embarrassed. Would that shrewd Mrs. Evensong notice that Thomas was not himself? Barely coherent? Or would she think he was another society dilettante who didn’t have two wits to rub together?
Thomas might have been privately educated after his unfortunate expulsion from school, and he might play the genial man-about-town, but he was, in fact, rather intelligent. And he knew, without flexing any part of his shattered brain, that if Harriet Benson came to work for him, he was in terrible, terrible trouble.